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STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden's mainstream parties head into March's snap election unloved by voters and short on seasoned leadership, raising the risk the far-right will increase its support and be able to force a shift in generous immigration policies.
Center-left Prime Minister Stefan Lofven's need to call a new election two months into office underlines his weakness. His likely rival for the top political post - Moderate party economic spokeswoman Anna Kinberg Batra - will not even head her own party until January.
The center-right and center-left lack fresh ideas - tax cuts are over but will not be reversed - and voters gave a thumbs down to both blocs in September's vote, handing the Sweden Democrats the balance of power.
After bringing down Lofven's government, the Sweden Democrats could now cement their rise from right-wing fringe to the center-stage of Swedish politics.
"No one knows how big the Sweden Democrats could be," said Anders Sannerstedt, political scientist at Lund University, pointing to research in 2013 that showed 44 percent of Swedes wanted to see less immigration. "They got 12.9 percent in September's election, so their voter pool isn't empty yet."
The party has threatened to bring down any government that fails to rein in immigration and wants to cut the number of asylum seekers reaching Sweden - the world's top per capita recipient - by 90 percent. All major parties have refused to cooperate with them.
But a strong showing by the Sweden Democrats in March will make them harder to ignore. A YouGov poll in December put support for the Sweden Democrats rising to 17.7 percent.
"The mainstream parties ... either have to find a way to cooperate across the political divide, or change their views on the Sweden Democrats," Magnus Hagevi, political scientist at Linnaeus University, said.
Generous immigration has been a cornerstone of Swedish politics for decades and research from Gothenburg University shows Swedes are becoming more, not less, tolerant, though the number saying they want lower immigration is still above 40 percent.
However, record number of asylum seekers - up to 105,000 in 2015 says the Migration Board - have revealed fault lines in the country of 9.5 million people.
Former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said in August that growing asylum seeker numbers would leave little room for welfare spending in the coming years. A TV poll this week showed more than 50 percent of local politicians from Reinfeldt's Moderate Party want Sweden to take in fewer refugees.
Sweden Democrat acting leader Mattias Karlsson said he wanted the March election to be "a referendum on immigration."
The main parties are in the doldrums.
The center-right Moderates face the possibility their partners in the former Alliance government could fall under the parliamentary threshold to win any parliamentary seats.
The Moderates themselves saw their share of the vote drop nearly 7 percentage points to around 23 percent in September and are short of funds. One senior party insider said the campaign budget will be 20-30 million crowns against 100 million for the EU and general election last year.
"We don't have the economic muscle," the party source said.
By contrast, the smaller Sweden Democrats have around 15-20 million crowns to spend. Sweden Democrat party secretary Bjorn Soder said his party would become Sweden's second biggest, "maybe following the snap election, but by the latest in 2018."
Leadership issues also dog the center-left and center-right.
At 44, Moderate leader-in-waiting Kinberg Batra is a seasoned MP. But she has yet to step out from the shadow of Reinfeldt. She is best known for saying Stockholmers were "smarter than the hicks" in the rest of the country.
"It is very hard to take over after Reinfeldt who was such a safe pair of hands, experienced and such a strategic thinker," said Lena Mellin, columnist at Aftonbladet newspaper.
Social Democrat Lofven, picked as compromise leader after two election defeats, has shown little of the negotiating prowess that made him a successful union leader. A Sifo poll for daily Svenska Dagbladet in November showed only 25 percent said his government had done a good job in its first month in office.
Faced with continued parliamentary deadlock, the Alliance has offered a deal that would make it easier for minority governments to pass budgets, hoping to avoid the trap Lofven's fate at the hands of the Sweden Democrats.
With polls showing the center-left and center-right running neck and neck, neither side has yet flinched.
"My biggest worry is that a new vote really isn't going to solve anything," said Linneaus University´s Hagevi.
Additional reporting by Johan Sennero and Daniel Dickson; Writing by Niklas Pollard; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Toby Chopra