Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, 45, is vying to see his four-party coalition become the first right-leaning government to win a second term in nearly a century.
That would spell a decisive break with the hold on power of the Social Democrats, who have dominated Swedish politics for 80 years and are considered the caretakers of the country’s famous cradle-to-grave welfare state.
In the overcast heavily immigrant Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby, voters were trickling in to the main polling station shortly after opening at 8:00 am (0600 GMT).
The election “is good, it’s exciting,” said 47-year-old Nina Dakwar as she went in to cast her vote for the Christian Democrats — part of the governing alliance — for whom she had been campaigning.
“I think the alliance will win … They are the best for Sweden,” she told AFP.
Dakwar was not worried about the far-right Sweden Democrats party’s rise.
“There is a risk (they’ll get in to parliament), but we hope they don’t,” said Dakwar.
“They are not such a big party. I don’t think they’ll have so much influence,” she said.
Four separate opinion polls published a day before the election handed a comfortable, albeit shrinking, lead to Reinfeldt’s government, although it remained unclear if he would secure a parliamentary majority.
The surveys showed the centre-right government, which in addition to Reinfeldt’s Moderates also includes the Liberal, Centre and Christian Democrat parties, holding a lead of between three and nine percentage points over the leftwing opposition.
Social Democrat leader Mona Sahlin, 53, who heads up the three-party left-wing alliance, however insisted Saturday she had not given up hope of becoming Sweden’s first woman prime minister.
There is still a chance that “we can achieve a ‘red-green’ government”, she said.
“Don’t vote away Sweden’s welfare state. What we sell off and tear down now we can never get back,” she cautioned in a televised appeal.
Towards the end of a campaign focused largely on the economy and the future of the welfare state, both Sahlin and Reinfeldt have meanwhile stressed the importance of achieving a majority government to offset the sway of the far-right Sweden Democrats, who are expected to make it into parliament for the first time.
“Don’t expose Sweden to this experiment (of allowing the Sweden Democrats into parliament). Make sure they don’t get any power,” Reinfeldt said Saturday, urging Swedes to vote in “a stable majority government”.
Even with a handful of seats, the far-right party could play kingmaker in a tightly split parliament with minority rule and, analysts caution, could even make it so difficult to govern that new elections would need to be called.
The four latest surveys handed the current government between 46.9 and 51.2 percent of voter intentions, which in the worst case would not be enough to secure a majority of the 349 seats in parliament.
Saturday’s surveys meanwhile indicated the Sweden Democrats, who won just 2.9 percent of the vote in the 2006 elections, would garner between 3.8 and 7.2 percent of votes, while the party itself has said it expects to win as much as eight percent.
Polling stations will close at 8:00 pm Sunday, with 7.1 million Swedes eligible to vote.
Turnout in Sweden is traditionally high and stood at nearly 82 percent in the last elections in 2006. Before the poll opening, 2.2 million voters had already cast their ballots in advance, election authorities said.