By Alistair Scrutton
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - It was a nudge - or an aggressive shove, depending on your politics. But it has polarized an otherwise understated campaign for Sunday's election in Sweden.
With questions being raised about election favorite Stefan Lofven's statesmanship, his TV debate clash with Enterprise Minister Annie Loof could not have come at a worse time.
Centre party leader Loof, 31, walked over to Social Democrat Lofven, 57, to hand him a paper on energy in a political stunt. The flustered opposition leader then raised his arm and physically shooed her away, under the glare of the cameras.
Sweden is known for an understated manner of public debate where outbursts are often frowned upon - and where equality for women is sacred.
Thursday night's incident made headlines in Sweden and the center-right government, lagging in the polls, seized on the image of an older man brushing away a younger woman to question the credentials of the opposition candidate for prime minister.
"I think tonight we saw how Social Democrat strong men behave," said Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who quietly stood between the two bickering politicians during the clash. "It's power they seek, it's power they want. They are not interested in taking help from others."
For his part, Lofven brushed aside any criticism of his performance, saying Loof's stunt smacked of the antics of an undisciplined party youth wing. "It was not so bad," he said.
Loof, whose party is a member of the current ruling coalition, said after the debate: "It was not wise statesmanship by Stefan Lofven."
"FELL INTO TRAP"
Lofven heads the polls on promises to hike spending on schools and hospitals and raise taxes after eight years of Reinfeldt trimming welfare. But his lead has narrowed to single digits in recent weeks - in part due to doubts about the former trade unionist's experience to run the country.
At stake is who will lead one of Europe's most successful economies. Despite growth outdoing the euro zone since the financial crisis, a housing boom and falling taxes, Lofven hopes to capitalize on voters seeking a return to Sweden's older image of cradle-to-grave welfare and job security.
Lofven has wide experience in industry as a trade unionist - many executives like him for his work reaching wage deals with companies during the financial crisis. His image of a quietly spoken politician had helped many voters put their trust in him.
But Lofven has never been elected to national political office and Thursday's loss of control may have added to that uncertainty about his ability to govern.
"It is hard to know the impact of what he did. But Lofven fell into a trap. He should never have done it," said political scientist Marie Demker at the University of Gothenburg. "He is just not as comfortable as Reinfeldt on television or as a public speaker."
Polls show center-left parties lead the government by around 6 percentage points. Reinfeldt, however, has benefited from some voters trusting his track record in the face of the expected impasse after the vote - pollsters say neither the left nor right may garner a parliamentary majority.
The Social Democrats, founders of Sweden's welfare state, would often take nearly 50 percent of the vote in elections in the past few decades.
But even though Lofven may win Sunday's vote, his party may suffer its worse performance in a century with under 30 percent of votes, polls show.
(Editing by Alison Williams)