Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, 45, is vying to see his four-party coalition become the first rightwing 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 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 8am.
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.
Three separate polls published a day before the vote showed the gap between Reinfeldt’s coalition and the left-wing opposition was shrinking, but still handed the government a lead of between four and nine percentage points.
Social Democrat leader Mona Sahlin, 53, who heads up the three-party leftwing coalition, however insisted Saturday she had not given up hope of becoming Sweden’s first woman prime minister.
There is still a chance “we can achieve a ‘red-green’ government,” she said.
Sahlin’s supporters remained upbeat.
“I’m optimistic. I think anything can happen,” Ayaan Mohammed, a 29-year-old of Somali origin, told AFP as she voted in Rinkeby.
“I like their strategy and their system a lot better. I’m voting for Mona Sahlin,” she said.
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 on 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 three latest surveys handed the current government between 49.2 and 51.2 percent of voter intentions, which even in the worst case is enough votes to secure a clear parliamentary majority with 175 of the 349 seats.
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 5.9 percent of votes, while the party itself has said it expects to win as much as eight percent.
Polling stations opened at 8am and will close 12 hours later, with 7.1 million Swedish citizens eligible to vote, including a record number of first-time voters.
Turnout in Sweden is traditionally high and stood at nearly 82 percent in the last elections.