Sweden faced political turmoil last night following shock general election gains by the country's main far-right party which appeared to have denied the governing centre-right coalition an overall majority.
The virulently anti-immigration Sweden Democrats won their first seats to Sweden's parliament with 20 of the 349 contested in Sunday's general election.
The Sweden Democrats' rise prompted spontaneous protests in Stockholm and other major cities in Sweden. Many said they were dismayed by such a result in a country which had always prided itself on tolerance.
Sweden's governing centre-right four-party Alliance for Sweden fell short of a majority after polling 172 seats, but the Prime Minister, Frederik Reinfeldt, who leads the alliance, ruled out any co-operation with the Sweden Democrats.
The Sweden Democrats ran a campaign calling for drastic reductions in Swedish immigration under the slogan "Keep Sweden Swedish". Its politicians argue that Third World immigrants in Sweden are mainly responsible for crime. The party wants total assimilation of foreigners rather than integration, which it sees as a halfway measure.
Jimmie Akesson, the party's youthful leader, said the Sweden Democrats would use their surprise gains to make themselves heard, as they had not been invited to attend official pre-election debates. "We have in many ways been treated as anything but a political party in this election," he said.
The Sweden Democrats have discarded an earlier image as a far right skinhead-style political organisation under Mr Akesson's leadership and presented themselves as respectable, suit-wearing, middle-class Swedes for their election campaign.
"We are not racists, we just want to enable immigrants to become Swedes through assimilation. Integration does not work," Mr Akesson insisted in interviews after his party's result became known.
Immigrants make up 14 per cent of Sweden's 9.4 million population.
Mr Reinfeldt said he would not rule out working together with Sweden's Greens and Social Democrats who form the main opposition block in parliament.
The deputy leader of the Greens, Maria Wetterstrand, appeared to rule out the idea of co-operation with Mr Reinfeldt's alliance. She said his plans to extend the use of nuclear power in Sweden through construction of several new atomic power stations directly contradicted her own party's aims and political convictions.
She said her alliance with the Social Democrats, which won 157 seats, remained intact.
Mona Sahlin, the leader of the Social Democrats, conceded defeat and admitted that her party had not been able to win back the confidence of voters. Her party is credited with setting up the country's generous welfare state system over the past 65 years.
"The Alliance is the biggest majority group. It is now up to Mr Reinfeldt to find out how to rule Sweden without letting the Sweden Democrats win political influence," she insisted.
One Swedish Muslim woman, interviewed in Stockholm, admitted she was shocked at the result. "I am very unhappy with the result. Times ahead do not look good for Muslims," she said.
Susanne Lindeskog, from the southern city of Malmo, which has a large immigrant population, said: "It is frightening that 8 per cent of Swedes have voted for a party with racist roots. I am ashamed to be Swedish," she added.
Jimmie Akesson: Plodding and politically nondescript
The 31-year-old took over the Sweden Democrats in 2005 and since then has tried to tone down its extremist elements to attract new supporters outside of its white, working-class core.
Plodding and uncharismatic – he was described by one Swedish anti-fascist organisation of speaking like the CEO of a small company reporting its annual results – Akesson has nonetheless made his party more electable. He did so by exploiting the vacuum left by the two main political blocs which both support Sweden's largely liberal immigration policy. "This guy is politically nondescript," said Graeme Atkinson, the European editor of Searchlight, an anti-fascist magazine.
University-educated Akesson emerged as leader after a hard-fought contest. He then sought to have the more thuggish elements of the party, founded in 1988, thrown out. He has largely escaped controversy. However, he was recorded in an undercover operation by journalists at a gathering where right-wingers sang racist songs as well as one about the murder of former Swedish prime minister Olof Palme.