Support for Swedish anti-immigration party surges

By Simon Johnson and Johan Ahlander STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats has surged to nearly 20 percent over the past six months, a poll showed on Tuesday, as the country turns to tents and ski resorts to house record numbers of asylum seekers. Europe's immigration crisis has upended Swedish politics. Just over a year ago the former center-right prime minister exhorted Swedes to "open your hearts" to asylum seekers. The center-left government that was then elected has partially closed the borders, ending decades of consensus over generous asylum policies and breaking ranks with much of Europe. The Sweden Democrats, which held a jubilant congress at the weekend, doubled their support in the 2014 national vote and hold the balance of power in parliament as the third largest party - although cooperation between the other parties has so far kept them out in the cold. The next election is due in 2018. "Friends of Sweden, we're winning", party leader Jimmie Akesson told party members. The twice yearly poll by the Statistics Office showed the party would get 19.9 percent of the vote if an election were held now, up from 14.4 in the previous poll in May. The government of Social Democrats and Greens has adopted many of the policies of the Sweden Democrats. Prime Minister Stefan Lovfen said the country needed "breathing space" as it sought to deal with as many as 190,000 asylum seekers this year, more than double the roughly 80,000 in 2014. The poll of 9,021 people during Nov. 2-25 showed the government losing support, dropping to 33.5 percent from 36.6 percent in May. Support for the four-party, opposition center-right Alliance fell to 39.0 percent from 40.6 percent. While a separate poll showed seven of 10 Swedes supported tighter asylum policies, the measures to deter migrants have highlighted tensions in the fragile minority coalition between Lofven's Social Democrats and the Green Party. Green Deputy Prime Minister Asa Romson was close to tears last week when announcing the clamp-down and the party is split over the move, debating whether to stay in government. But the mainstream opposition Alliance is also split. The Liberal Party has offered to support tax reform by the coalition while the Centre Party has said it is committed to more generous asylum policies, in contrast to the tougher stance by the opposition coalition's biggest party, the Moderates. Even together, Alliance parties cannot command a majority without the Sweden Democrats, which last week made overtures to the Moderates and Christian Democrats on forming a government, a proposition rejected by both parties. The move still highlighted the political disarray which has hamstrung the country in the face of major challenges. Ultra-low interest rates combined with a lack of building has left Sweden facing a housing bubble that could topple the otherwise stable economy, while the labor market needs to be liberalized if migrants are to be successfully integrated. Standards in schools are also sliding and the country needs huge investment in infrastructure to remain competitive. "The influx of hundreds of thousands of people from outside Europe is the most enormous challenge to the Swedish polity since World War Two," said Nick Aylott, associate professor at Sodertorn University. (Additional reporting by Johan Sennero; Editing by Niklas Pollard)