STOCKHOLM A far-right party has taken third place in Swedish opinion polls, helped by concerns over immigration and rising unemployment, and may now hold the balance of power after the next national election in 2014.
Nordic populist parties are showing resilience despite scandals among right-wing activists in Sweden and mass killings by anti-Islamist Anders Behring Breivik last year.
The Sweden Democrats (SD) have about 11 percent support in an October poll published on Monday by United Minds pollsters in Aftonbladet newspaper, double its showing in the 2010 election. Other polls in the last few weeks showed a similar trend.
SD's growing popularity comes as Sweden, once the strongest of Europe's economies, faces possible recession by the end of 2012 and controversy swirls over its welcoming of immigrants from crisis-hit Europe and refugees from countries such as Syria.
"Immigration is topping the agenda and this benefits the Sweden Democrats," said Carl Melin, polling head at United Minds. The SD's performance was its strongest since United Minds began its polling in 2009.
Another October poll by Ipsos, published in Dagens Nyheter newspaper, showed the SD at 8.5 percent.
"We may be entering a recession and this is a good breeding ground for parties like the Sweden Democrats," said Johanna Laurin Gulled, a polling manager at Ipsos.
UNHAPPY WITH GOVERNMENT
In Sweden, much SD support has been drawn from dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's centre-right coalition government, which is perceived by many voters as tired and out of ideas after being in power since 2006.
"There is a feeling of frustration in Sweden, that there is something happening in Sweden that we have to deal with but mainstream parties are not looking at it," said Daniel Poohl, editor of Expo magazine, an anti-racist publication that investigates far-right politics.
Over the last few months, Sweden's front pages have featured stories of layoffs from some of their most emblematic companies, such as telecoms giant Ericsson, and debates over immigrants.
People living in Sweden with foreign citizenship account for about 7 percent of the country's population of 9.5 million.
A televised debate in October between party leaders quickly turned to immigration, benefitting SD leader Jimmie Akesson.
Polished and well-dressed, Akesson has helped improve the image of a party long perceived as dominated by right-wingers.
"They have no other solutions apart from isolating Sweden from the rest of the world," Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told Expressen newspaper last week after the publication of one poll.
BALANCE OF POWER
Surveys show the SD may have a ceiling of support at between 10 and 15 percent, but it could still hold the balance of power.
It, like other anti-immigration parties, languished after Breivik's killing of 77 people in Norway last year when the economy was also stronger, relegating issues of immigration.
But like other Nordic right-wing parties, SD has recovered.
In Finland it is a mixed picture. The anti-euro Finns Party won 12 percent of votes in municipal elections in late October, higher than the 5 percent it won in 2008 local elections but far less than the 19 percent it took in last year's national vote.
The Danish People's Party, which as a powerboker in the last government coalition, has risen in polls amid an unpopular new left-of-centre government. In Norway, the anti-immigrant Progress Party, hit by sex scandals that also eroded its image, is now the third largest party in Norway.
(Additional reporting by Niklas Pollard in Stockholm, Balazs Koranyi in Oslo, Mette Fraende in Copenhagen and Ritsuko Ando in Helsinki; Editing by Louise Ireland)