Breaking a longstanding taboo, Sweden's conservative Moderate Party last week opened the door for a cooperation with the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, causing a deep rift within the stunned four-party centre-right opposition Alliance.
All of the political parties in parliament have long held a cordon sanitaire around the Sweden Democrats because of its roots in the neo-Nazi movement, but Moderates leader Anna Kinberg Batra argued the party could no longer be ignored.
“It hasn't worked to pretend that such a large party in parliament doesn't exist,” Kinberg Batra told public broadcaster SVT.
As Sweden took in the highest number of refugees per capita in Europe in 2015, the Sweden Democrats have seen their popularity soar. A recent poll credited them with 21 percent of voter sympathies, making them the country's second-biggest party after the Social Democrats.
They first entered parliament in 2010 with 5.7 percent of votes, rising to nearly 13 percent in the 2014 election.
Kinberg Batra made her remarks after calling on her Alliance partners to submit a joint budget to parliament and accept the far-right's votes — indirect support which would in effect topple the minority left-wing government comprising the Social Democrats and Greens.
Officials from the Moderates and the far-right are due to meet “in the near future”, Swedish daily Dagens Industri reported on Friday.
Kinberg Batra also said she was willing to talk to the Sweden Democrats on some issues, but did not specify which ones.
The Centre and Liberal parties fiercely oppose the move, while the small Christian Democrats said they would accept the Sweden Democrats' indirect support but would not negotiate with them.
The Moderates need the three parties' support if they are to have a chance at winning the next election in 2018.
Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Åkesson was quick to react, saying he would demand “influence over what the government would look like” if his support helped the opposition regain power.
Daniel Poohl, editor-in-chief of anti-racism magazine Expo, raised a warning finger to the Moderates.
The Sweden Democrats “constitute the greatest threat to democracy as we know it”, he said, calling Kinberg Batra's invitation “a milestone” for the far-right.
Åkesson is a clean-cut 37-year-old with a talent for public speaking. Often described by media as having the looks of “a mother-in-law's dream”, he is credited with giving the party a respectable facade.
But it is known for its nationalist views and strong stance against immigration, which it regards as a threat to Sweden's identity.
Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Löfven made headlines in September 2016 when he described the Sweden Democrats as a “racist and Nazi party”.
Ironically, Kinberg Batra said much the same thing a month earlier.
“They blame all of Sweden's problems on immigration. It is a racist party as it sets groups against each other and puts labels on other people,” she said in a televised interview.
The Alliance, which governed Sweden from 2006-2014, is keen to seize back power but its hands have been tied since its 2014 election defeat.
Prime Minister Löfven holds a weak minority which could easily be toppled if the opposition accepted the Sweden Democrats' indirect support on key issues in parliament.
But the Alliance has until now refused to do so, not wanting to legitimise the Sweden Democrats, and because doing so would throw the country into political instability.
Observers have now questioned whether the Alliance can survive such a deep ideological split.
A source in the Centre party told AFP they were “stunned” by Kinberg Batra's announcement. The Centre party “absolutely does not want to work in the Alliance on matters on which the Moderates and Sweden Democrats would launch negotiations”.
So why would Kinberg Batra risk such a rift?
Editorialists have suggested her move was intended to quash critics within her own party who are angry that she has not taken advantage of a right-wing majority in parliament, which could snatch power from the left.
“Our duty is not to ensure that Stefan Löfven gets through his left-wing politics,” Camilla Brunsberg, a local group leader for the Moderates in southern Sweden, told AFP.
A poll on Tuesday showed six out of 10 Moderates voters support a cooperation with the far-right.
In Sweden's neighbouring countries, parties with anti-immigration and eurosceptic views have already entered the halls of power, in coalition governments in Norway and Finland and providing key support to the government