STOCKHOLM The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats are struggling to mobilize voters before EU parliamentary elections this month despite polls showing similar parties elsewhere heading for their best results ever.
Party leader Jimmy Akesson told Reuters on Monday that his party's sympathizers had relatively little interest in European Union politics and he pinned his hopes for a stronger performance in this year's general election.
"It is obvious that our voters are very reluctant to vote in European elections," Akesson said by telephone.
"We thought maybe it had changed a bit since the last election, but it seems as if our voters are very skeptical about even going and voting."
Two polls on Monday put support for the Sweden Democrats on 5.7 percent and 6.3 percent respectively ahead of the EU vote, up from 3.3 percent in 2009.
Movements demanding that national governments reclaim power from the European Union are likely to make major gains in the elections taking place between May 22-25.
"Some of those parties, like UKIP, for example, are profiled mainly as an EU-critical party," said Ulf Bjereld, professor of political science at Gothenburg University. "For the average Sweden Democrat voter EU opposition is not why you vote for them, it is because you want another immigration policy."
By contrast, a recent poll put Britain's euro-sceptic UKIP at 29 percent, 1 percentage point ahead of the main opposition party, Labor, while in France, the far-right National Front could get 20 to 24 of the vote.
BALANCE OF POWER
Sweden has for generations been seen as a bastion of tolerance, but the economic downturn and worries that the country can no longer afford its generous welfare state have sparked a debate about immigration in recent years.
The capital Stockholm was hit by the worst rioting in decades in 2013. In a recent poll for Swedish TV, 44 percent of respondents said the country had taken in too many immigrants, up from 37 percent a year ago.
The Sweden Democrats, who have distanced themselves from Sweden's far-right under Akesson's leadership, have seen their support surge.
"I think we are between 9-14 percent now and it is very feasible that we end up there," Akesson said.
The latest polls ahead of Sweden's general election in September show the Sweden Democrats backed by around 8 percent of voters, up from 5.7 percent in the election in 2010.
"Today... people are making the connection between the (immigration) problem and the rising cost of welfare, the fall in school results and so on," said Akesson, who wants to cut immigration by 80-90 percent.
Sweden took in around 29,000 asylum seekers in 2013, three times the figure from 2005.
Akesson said the mainstream parties may have to listen to the Sweden Democrats' message on immigration in coming years.
"A vote for us a very clear signal to the other parties that voters are unhappy with the immigration policy," he said. "The more votes we get, the more difficult it becomes for the other parties to maintain the policies they have now."
(Writing by Simon Johnson; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Tom Heneghan)