Sweden’s Lofven returns as PM amid political fragmentation

Stefan Löfven

Stefan Lofven has returned as Sweden’s prime minister just two weeks after losing a no-confidence vote in the latest government crisis in the Scandinavian country due to political fragmentation.

Lofven yesterday lost a vote in parliament by 173-116 with 60 abstentions, but will be reinstated as prime minister as the opposition needed a majority of 175 votes to stop him.

The leader of the Social Democrats, who last month became the first Swedish prime minister to lose a no-confidence vote and subsequently resigned, engaged in frantic negotiations and compromise with both ex-communists and centrists to cling to power.

Even so, experts say his renewed tenure may prove shortlived as the country’s traditionally consensusdriven party system struggles to reconfigure itself around rising nationalists.

Lofven was ousted by an unusual allegiance of former communist, nationalist and conservative parties.  The trigger was a possible reform of rent controls that alienated his leftist allies, who were then joined by the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats.

Lofven has managed to stay in power for seven years despite the country’s shifting political alliances. The centreleft Social Democrats are traditionally viewed as Sweden’s natural party of government.

But growing support for the Sweden Democrats, whose roots are embedded in the neo-Nazi movement yet it ranks a close third in polls, has shaken up the country’s usually cosy left-right division, making such consensual politics difficult.

“The psychological effect of the Sweden Democrats’ breakthrough on other parties was huge,” said Nicholas Aylott, associate professor at Sodertorn University. “It broke up the traditional patterns of co-operation.”

Lofven, 63, a former trade union boss who has been prime minister since 2014, won support from a reforged coalition of parties to lead a new government. His future as prime minister is far from guaranteed.

“The formula for governing Sweden has broken up. It’s not possible to find another viable formula,” said former centre-right prime minister Carl Bildt.

A bigger test may come when next year’s budget is voted on this autumn. Lofven has said he will resign if it does not pass. That last happened in 2014 after his government’s budget failed to win enough votes in parliament and he had to rule through 2015 with a budget set by the opposition centre-right.

Swedish politics has long been defined as a fight between two blocs, the centre-left led by Lofven’s Social Democrats and the centre-right led by the Moderates, the main opposition party. Both sides initially treated the Sweden Democrats as pariahs.

But now the Sweden Democrats appear to be coming in from the cold, recently forming a joint immigration policy with the Moderates.

Analysts in Sweden said the most likely result would be two new blocs with the Sweden Democrats joining the right side, and the nominally centre-right Centre party moving to the left. But these blocs are far from ideologically coherent. That suggests national elections in 2022 may not provide a clear winner either.

Opinion is divided over how tricky passing the budget will be. Lofven’s main problem is that his government relies for support on parties that barely get on. The Centre party refuses to speak to either the Left or the Sweden Democrats, and repeated yesterday that it will not back a budget negotiated with the ex-communists.

If the budget does force the fall of Lofven’s government and he cannot then form a new coalition, extra elections would probably have to be held – even though elections are scheduled for 2022. Amid so much potential instability, some observers believe Lofven will be able to cling on to power again.

A larger question for the Social Democrats is what they seek beyond merely staying in power. Their ratings have been in decline while both traditional centre-right and nationalist parties make gains.

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