Sweden's coalition of right-wing parties looks set to secure a narrow victory in a general election that promises to rewrite the political map in the Nordic region's biggest country.
The likely victory hinged on the rise of the anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, which saw the biggest gains of any of the parties on Sunday and now makes them the country's second-largest political force.
"I am so proud, I am so happy about what we have done together," said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Akesson, 43, after it became clear the party was heading for its best result ever.
With 95% of the 6,578 voting districts now counted, the opposition bloc led by Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson gained 175 mandates in the 349-seat parliament giving them a slender advantage over the ruling Social Democrats and its allies.
The gains by Swedish nationalists are emblematic of a broader shift in European politics. While French President Emmanuel Macron's alliance remained the largest bloc in the April legislative election, the far-right National Rally fared much better than expected. Italy's right-wing Brothers of Italy party, whose roots stretch back to Italy's post-fascist movement, leads the right-wing coalition that looks poised for a landslide win in the Sept. 25 elections, according to the latest opinion polls.
Amid a gang-fueled crime wave, the Sweden Democrats had campaigned on a promise to "make Sweden safe again," by introducing longer prison sentences and reducing immigration to a minimum, as well as supporting the construction of new nuclear reactors. That clearly resonated with voters, who handed them an additional 11 new parliamentary seats, more than any other party.
A final tallly is scheduled for Wednesday, after which it is expected that Kristersson will push to form a new administration. "I'm ready to do everything I can to create a new, stable and actionable government for all of Sweden," he said in a speech late on Sunday.
Kristersson, 58, represents the right-wing bloc's chosen candidate for prime minister. A career politician, he has presided over the party's shift and return to the right, which culminated in opening the door to cooperating with the Sweden Democrats. He has since received much criticism for reneging on his promises to never collaborate with the nationalist party, including one given during the 2018 election to a well known Swedish holocaust survivor.
Should the right-wing factions form a new government - a process that may prove drawn out given the slender lead - it would bring to an end eight years of rule by Social Democrat-led administrations. A party rooted in the socialist and labor traditions, it has been the largest party in Sweden's parliament for the past century. But in recent history its grip has ebbed, losing out first to the Moderates in the wake of the global financial crisis and more recently by the rise of the Sweden Democrats.
The party's leader and Sweden's first female prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, 55, has consistently polled favorably with voters, however. With only one seat separating the two blocs, Andersson was not ready to concede defeat late on Sunday. "Every vote will be counted. It will take time to get a final election result," she said in a post on social media.
After the 2018 election, it took four months for Andersson's predecessor, Stefan Lofven, to form a government as the nation's traditional political blocs imploded following the emergence of the Sweden Democrats, which fragmented the electoral landscape.
Akesson, 43, joined the anti-immigrant party in 1995, eight years after its formation as a part of Sweden's far-right, and he has been central in ushering the group into parliament, where it got its first seats in 2010.
During his 17-year tenure, the nationalist leader has sought to make his party more palatable by weeding out extremists and abandoning some controversial policies, including more restrictive policies on abortion and a demand for Sweden to leave the European Union.
"For the first time we have a real chance of not only being an opposition party but actually being an active part of a new government that can take politics in a new direction," Richard Jomshof, party secretary for the Sweden Democrats, told SVT.
The largest Nordic nation, at the top of most global welfare rankings, sought to be a safe haven in the recent decades by taking in waves of immigrants. Parties across the political spectrum have taken a tougher stand on migrants after Europe's refugee crisis in 2015.
While the nationalist party's emergence tracked the country's growing difficulties of integrating immigrants, gang-related violence and crime has taken over in past years as the driver of the Sweden Democrats' support.