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Absentee voting begins in Swedish elections

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07:23 CEST+02:00
Absentee voting began in the September 19th Swedish general election on Thursday in what is expected to be a tight race centred on the economy, unemployment and welfare.

Nearly 132,780 eligible Swedish voters living abroad could vote from Thursday on a second term for Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's centre-right alliance, or for Social Democrat leader Mona Sahlin's leftwing coalition.

Sweden's parliamentary system has traditionally lent itself to election races featuring a number of smaller parties running separately.

But this year the two large blocs -- and only two main candidates -- are facing off against each other for the first time, leading commentators to compare the vote to a presidential election.

Reinfeldt, who just turned 45, is eager to focus the debate on his government's record on handling the economy which has made a roaring comeback after an initial hit from the global financial crisis.

"Our focus today is that we want to continue along the same path," Reinfeldt told AFP.

"Our public finances are in good order," he added at a press conference, stressing that "we are not facing public debt levels similar to other European countries hit by the budget crisis."

While handed points for its economic policies, Reinfeldt's four-party government however faces criticism for social reforms and cuts to the Scandinavian country's generous welfare state, as well as soaring unemployment among young people.

Those issues top the agenda of the opposition, with Sahlin angling to become Sweden's first woman prime minister by presenting the election as a choice between "policies towards more employment and more gender equality or towards more unemployment and inequality."

The 53-year-old veteran of the Social Democratic Party, which has dominated Swedish political life for most of the 20th century, has been in training for

the top government seat for years.

She has been patiently rebuilding her image since a dramatic fall from grace in the 1990s when she was caught purchasing chocolate and other items on her party credit card in the so-called Toblerone Affair.

The two blocs have been neck-to-neck in recent polls, and observers say if neither wins a clear majority next month, the small but increasingly popular far-right Sweden Democrats party might not only enter parliament for the first time but could even play king-maker and determine the outcome of the election.

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