STOCKHOLM - Sweden's mainstream parties head into March's snap election unloved by voters and short on seasoned leadership, raising the risk the far-right will increase its support and be able to force a shift in generous immigration policies.
Centre-left Prime Minister Stefan Lofven's need to call a new election two months into office underlines his weakness.
His likely rival for the top political post - Moderate party economic spokeswoman Anna Kinberg Batra - will not even head her own party until January.
The centre-right and centre-left lack fresh ideas - tax cuts are over but will not be reversed - and voters gave a thumbs down to both blocs in September's vote, handing the Sweden Democrats the balance of power.
After bringing down Lofven's government, the Sweden Democrats could now cement their rise from right-wing fringe to the centre-stage of Swedish politics. "No one knows how big the Sweden Democrats could be," said Anders Sannerstedt, political scientist at Lund University, pointing to research in 2013 that showed 44 per cent of Swedes wanted to see less immigration.
"They got 12.9 per cent in September's election, so their voter pool isn't empty yet."
The party has threatened to bring down any government that fails to rein in immigration and wants to cut the number of asylum seekers reaching Sweden - the world's top per capita recipient - by 90 per cent.
All major parties have refused to cooperate with them.
But a strong showing by the Sweden Democrats in March will make them harder to ignore. A YouGov poll in December put support for the Sweden Democrats rising to 17.7 per cent. "The mainstream parties ... either have to find a way to cooperate across the political divide, or change their views on the Sweden Democrats," Magnus Hagevi, political scientist at Linnaeus University, said.
Generous immigration has been a cornerstone of Swedish politics for decades and research from Gothenburg University shows Swedes are becoming more, not less, tolerant, though the number saying they want lower immigration is still above 40 per cent.
However, record number of asylum seekers - up to 105,000 in 2015 says the Migration Board - have revealed fault lines in the country of 9.5 million people.
Former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said in August that growing asylum seeker numbers would leave little room for welfare spending in the coming years. A TV poll this week showed more than 50 per cent of local politicians from Reinfeldt's Moderate Party want Sweden to take in fewer refugees.
Sweden Democrat acting leader Mattias Karlsson said he wanted the March election to be "a referendum on immigration."