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Sweden's Moderates offers olive branch to anti-immigrant party

By Johan Sennero

By Johan Sennero

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - The leader of Sweden's Moderate party called on the center-right opposition to unite to bring down the minority coalition government with help from the Sweden Democrats, a sign the anti-immigration party could be starting to lose its pariah status.

Mainstream politicians have so far refused to have anything to do with the Sweden Democrat party after they first won seats in parliament in 2010. The party was called "racist" by Moderate leader Anna Kinberg Batra only six months ago.

But in a U-turn she said the Moderates would now be prepared to work with the party in parliament and would be prepared to take power with passive support from the Sweden Democrats.

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"In questions where there are the conditions for agreement, I do not think we should exclude building a majority with the Sweden Democrats," Batra told reporters.

However, she ruled out forming a formal coalition with the Sweden Democrats or including them in preparing an joint opposition Alliance budget.

"But again, I do not want to begin talks on forming a government ... or budget negotiations," she said.

Two members of the four-party Alliance rejected Batra's call to bring down the center-left coalition by uniting behind an alternative budget proposition in September.

"We want to change the government but not with support from the Sweden Democrats," Annie Loof, leader of Alliance member the Centre party said.

"Tomorrow Donald Trump is sworn in as president, yesterday Britain's prime minister said there would be a 'hard Brexit'. In times like these, we need security, stability and leadership."

DIVISIONS WIDENED

The smallest Alliance party, Christian Democrats, said it supported the proposal from the Moderates.

A wave of populism across Europe, sparked in part by growing worries about immigration, has boosted support for the Sweden Democrats, who won around 13 percent of the vote in 2014.

Mainstream parties have so far refused to have anything to do with the Sweden Democrats, but neither the center left nor center right can form a majority government without them.

Their popularity has widened divisions in the Alliance between those on the right, who want to reach out a hand and secure a parliamentary majority and those who see the party as untouchable. The Moderates have been bleeding voters to the Sweden Democrats in recent polls.

"With the Moderates and the Alliance doing badly they may need to shake things up, and this should be seen in this perspective," said Jonas Hinnfors, political scientist at Gothenburg University.

With the Centre and Liberal parties against any form of cooperation with the Sweden Democrats, the Alliance could face a rupture less than three years after losing power.

"If they can't agree on that question, I will think that will make it hard to form an agreement on a government," said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Akesson, who wants closer cooperation with the Moderates.

A poll published in daily Aftonbladet showed the Sweden Democrats backed by around 21.5 percent of voters despite tougher immigration rules which have slashed the number of asylum applications from a record in 2015.

They have overtaken the Moderates as the second largest party, according to the poll, trailing only the Social Democrats.

(Reporting by Johan Sennero and Simon Johnson; Editing by Niklas Pollard and Alison Williams)

 
 
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