Sweden prime minister’s abrupt resignation upends the country and its politics

Sweden prime minister’s abrupt resignation upends the country and its politics

18:04 - The front runner to replace him would be the first female premier and could face the same challenges in governing with no parliamentary majority

Stefan Lofven has been a survivor. The Swedish prime minister navigated seven years of fractious politics and fragile governing coalitions. He hung on as the coronavirus pandemic devastated his country — its response coming under increasingly harsh scrutiny — and he recaptured his seat after being ousted in June.

Then on Sunday, with no warning, he resigned.

The surprise announcement sent a tremor through Swedish politics at an already turbulent time in Stockholm, with leaders in a divided government pressing to pass a budget proposal, national elections looming in 2022 and public support growing for a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots.

The 64-year-old Lofven, a former metalworkers union boss, said he was quitting for the good of his center-left Social Democratic Party, which long dominated the country’s parliament but now relies on alliances with rivals to maintain tenuous control.

His resignation becomes official in November, when the party will elect a new chair, who will then become prime minister if confirmed by parliament. After 10 years in the spotlight, as head of his party since 2012 and prime minister since 2014, Lofven’s departure leaves a leadership vacuum. But it also presents an opportunity for a country that has long thought of itself as a world leader on gender equality: the prospect of Sweden’s first female prime minister.

The four other Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway — are all led by women, and the most recently elected of the quartet, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, is the youngest female state leader in the world. Sweden, however, has picked men for the top job since the 1870s. Experts expect there to be significant pressure on the Social Democrats to nominate a mold-breaker.

“We have a high profile in gender issues and women’s rights, but still all our Nordic neighbors have had female prime ministers, so it’s high time for Sweden,” said Malena Rosén Sundström, a political science professor at Lund University.

Magdalena Andersson, Sweden’s finance minister, has emerged as the early front-runner to replace Lofven. Andersson, whom Bloomberg News described as “a staunch advocate of fiscal prudence,” has won plaudits for her handling of the economy during the pandemic.

“She has kept Sweden rather stable during the crisis,” Rosén Sundström said Monday. “The common sense is she has done quite well considering the circumstances.”

While Andersson’s appointment would make history, it would not represent a significant departure from most of her predecessor’s major policy stances, according to Jonas Hinnfors, a political scientist at the University of Gothenburg. The Social Democrats, who helped build Sweden’s robust welfare state, favor strengthening the system.

“It will be important for a party that claims to be a feminist party,” he said. “But I don’t think that policies will be changed that much.”

Significant governing challenges will confront Lofven’s successor, whoever it may be, and analysts said the prime minister’s abrupt retirement underscores just how difficult that job has become.

“Almost everyone was taken aback and surprised,” Hinnfors said. But with hindsight, “you might see where it was heading. He’s probably exhausted.”

When Lofven took over a decade ago, he was charged with reinventing a party that was losing more voters every year. Given his past union post, he brought “a long experience in negotiations” to the job and began astute political dealmaking, said Anders Sannerstedt, a senior political scientist at Lund University.

“He has been quite successful creating coalitions and getting support for his government,” Sannerstedt said. It has required “strategic calculating” and “tireless negotiations.”

To fend off the far-right Sweden Democrats, whose growing popularity alarmed mainstream leaders, Lofven strung together alliances with the Green Party, the Left Party and the Center Party. The political landscape remains complicated. Although the Social Democratic Party is the most popular, it receives just 25 percent of the public’s support in opinion polls. There is no clear-cut parliamentary majority.

This perilous dynamic was perhaps most apparent in June, when a debate between Lofven and his allies over a rent-control policy escalated into a crisis that nearly caused the government’s collapse. After Lofven backed a proposal that would allow landlords to raise some rents, the Left Party withdrew its support and called for a vote of no confidence.

Lofven became Sweden’s first prime minister to lose such a contest, and he resigned his post, which under the country’s rules allowed him a last-ditch attempt to cobble together a new coalition. He was narrowly reappointed one week later, in a move that Politico Europe described as burnishing Lofven’s “reputation as a canny negotiator able to get out of tight political corners.”

But after weathering a pandemic that hit Sweden harder than any other country in the region — because of the Swedes’ lax restrictions, experts said — the summer saga may have been too much to bear.

“There were endless negotiations with a very fragile government position, which is every day facing collapse, and he survived step by step,” Hinnfors noted. “And then there’s a pandemic. It’s an enormous challenge to survive this, really a tough personal challenge.”

On Sunday, Lofven outlined his vision for the 2022 election campaign, one he said should highlight jobs and climate policy. He did not directly address the strains of his tenure.

“Everything has an end, and I want to give my successor the very best conditions ahead of the election,” he said during his annual summer speech.

A new leader, the prime minister added, “will give the party and the labor movement new and more energy — and we will need that.”

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