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28 June 2021

The meaning of the resignation of Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven

How political fragmentation and the rise of the far right transformed Sweden’s cosy politics.  

By James Savage

Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven resigned on Monday, one week after losing a confidence vote in parliament. Now Andreas Norlén, the speaker of the Riksdag or Swedish parliament, is charged with finding a workable governing coalition among its eight political parties. The prosperous and traditionally egalitarian country, which won international attention last year for its unusually liberal but questionably successful Covid-19 policy, faces an uncertain political future.

[See also: Sweden’s Covid-19 failures have exposed the myths of the lockdown-sceptics]

After a year in which the Riksdag has been reduced to a pandemic-era core of 55 members, the appearance of all but eight of the 349 MPs in the chamber on Monday had almost a festive feel to it. But they were there on serious business: to remove Löfven, a Social Democrat, from power.

The crisis was triggered after the once-communist Left Party declared that it could no longer support Löfven’s left-of-centre coalition government. The party’s leader, Nooshi Dadgostar, said she couldn’t accept plans to drop rent controls on new-build flats. What surprised many was that she was willing to translate that policy disagreement into support for a no-confidence motion raised by the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats – a party usually seen as beyond the pale on the left.

Löfven’s difficulties have been exacerbated by the stances of his other coalition partners, particularly the Centre Party, a smallish agrarian party that has reinvented itself as a champion of free-market economics. The coalition, formed in 2019 after four months of haggling between the eight parties of the Riksdag, was an uneasy cohabitation from the beginning. In order to get the Centre Party and the smaller Liberal Party to sign what became known as the January Agreement, Löfven offered a governing programme with lower taxes and a loosening of regulations on the labour and housing markets.

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In getting the agreement across the line he achieved his long-term ambition of splitting the Centre Party from the centre-right Moderates. But his programme was anathema to the Left Party, which has the abolition of capitalism as a fundamental aim in its constitution. Furthermore, the Centre Party insisted that its deal with Löfven and his allies in the Green Party included a clause stating that the Left Party will be prevented from influencing government policy. The clause has become known, for obvious reasons, as the “humiliation clause”.

[See also: Sweden’s Anders Tegnell: We did not pursue “herd immunity” against Covid-19]

The Left Party has until now been willing to accept its humiliation and passively support the government in confidence votes for one reason alone: to withdraw its support would open up the field for the right-wing parties, including the Sweden Democrats, to form a government. But the combination of a new leader, unpalatable government policies and a growing need to show some mettle has pushed the party into doing the unthinkable: forcing the resignation of a Social Democratic prime minister.

The causes of the problems behind forming a government in Sweden can mostly be boiled down to two long-term structural changes: the Social Democrats’ relative decline and the far-right Sweden Democrats’ meteoric rise.

When Löfven first joined the Social Democrats in 1970, at the age of 13, the party had been in government for more than three decades without a break. By far the largest party in Sweden, its share of the vote did not fall below 40 per cent in a single election between 1932 and 1988, and it only had a few short spells out of power. The party became instrumental in forming modern Sweden’s generous high-tax welfare state, along with the liberal approach to immigration that gave rise to Sweden’s multicultural society.

Yet at the last election the Social Democrats polled just 28 per cent  their worst result since universal suffrage was introduced, after many years of steady decline. Meanwhile, the far-right Sweden Democrats, who entered parliament in 2010 on 6 per cent of the vote, are now at 19 per cent in the polls. This is slightly ahead of the 17.5 per cent share of the vote in the 2018 election, which made them the third largest party, after the Social Democrats and the Moderates.

The Sweden Democrats’ origins in neo-Nazi movements and more recent history of anti-immigrant rhetoric has made cooperation with the party controversial, and as recently as the last election all parties ruled out formally working together with them.

Now, however, the Moderates and Christian Democrats have opened the door to accepting Sweden Democrat help, seeing it as the only way to get back into power (the centre-right last formed a government in 2006-2014). The Liberal Party, always most comfortable allying with the centre right, has now fallen in behind them, after dumping Löfven. The Centre Party is now the only party of the broader centre right holding out against the Sweden Democrats, and has been rewarded for doing so with decent poll ratings.

All this translates into stalemate. Sweden’s parties are locked into inflexible positions. Speaker Norlén, who took four months to appoint a government in 2019, has no obvious path to finding a more stable administration.

The end result could be that Löfven is called back with a similar coalition to the one that just collapsed, though the past few weeks have made the obstacles to that clear. There is also a distinct possibility that Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson could be asked to form a government, with support from the Sweden Democrats. This would be a controversial new departure, putting the far-right party in a position of unprecedented power, but such a government could face even greater obstacles in parliament.

If Norlén fails to find a government that can win support in parliament, a snap election could follow, just one year before the country’s ordinary elections in September 2022 (which would be held anyway). But if the polls are to be believed, such an election would do little to make finding a majority easier. Unless some of Sweden’s parties are willing to work constructively with old rivals, Sweden could be set for a long period of political deadlock.

[See also: What we can learn from Guiseppe Garibaldi]