STOCKHOLM    -   Swedish Prime Minis­ter Magdalena Anders­son, the head of the op­position conservative Moderates Ulf Kristers­son, and far-right lead­er Jimmie Akesson face off as the three main candidates in Sunday’s general election.

Andersson came to power in November 2021 with the aim of breathing new life into the Social Democrats and ended up leading the charge for the na­tion’s historic NATO membership bid.

Sweden’s first wom­an prime minister de­spite the country’s rep­utation as one of the most feminist in the world, the 55-year-old replaced Stefan Lofven after he retired from politics. The former swimming champion served as finance min­ister for seven years, earning the nickname “The bulldozer” for her blunt manner, which can rub some the wrong way in a country deeply attached to con­sensus.

Initially hesitant about joining NATO, Andersson made up her mind several weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, convincing her party to abandon its longstanding op­position after two cen­turies of Swedish mili­tary non-alignment.

“She has managed to maintain, and even strengthen, the party’s position and voter sup­port,” political scientist Ulf Bjereld said.

Often clad in navy suits with her straight blonde hair tucked be­hind her ears, Anders­son has campaigned with the slogan “Swe­den can do better”.

She has vowed to defend Swedes’ cher­ished welfare state and pursued the party’s toughening stance on immigration. “Integra­tion has failed”, she said in April after im­migrant youths clashed with police. On the in­ternational scene, her thorniest task has been negotiating with Tur­key. Ankara has threat­ened to block Sweden’s NATO application, ac­cusing Stockholm of harbouring Kurdish “terrorists”.

A first obstacle was lifted in June, but Tur­key has yet to ratify Sweden’s membership in the Atlantic alliance. If she loses the election, she will become Swe­den’s shortest-serving prime minister since 1936. Her main chal­lenger for the prime ministership, conser­vative Moderates Party chief Ulf Kristersson hopes to end the Social Democrats’ eight years in power. The 58-year-old is gambling that his historic welcom­ing of the once-pari­ah far-right Sweden Democrats into the right-wing fold will pay off and supply the majority he needs in parliament.

A former gymnast with horn-rimmed glasses and clean-cut looks, Kristersson is making his second attempt to become prime minister. Af­ter the 2018 election, he was given a shot at forming a govern­ment but failed to se­cure a majority. The Moderates’ and their traditional centre-right allies refused to collaborate with the Sweden Democrats. By December 2019, Kris­tersson agreed to hold exploratory talks with the far-right, and their cooperation has deep­ened since then