Race begins to take on Sweden's challenges after PM quits

Stefan Lofven announced he would step down in November

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven announced that he would step down later this year. Reuters
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The resignation of Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has thrown open a leadership race in the country as it grapples with a rise in violent crime and a potential new wave of Covid-19.

Analysts expect a “turbulent autumn for Swedish politics” as parliament squabbles over the budget with the government holding a fragile majority.

Mr Lofven’s Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson is seen as an early frontrunner after Sweden’s strong finances helped it to weather the pandemic.

Health Minister Lena Hallengren is another potential candidate for the top job, after Mr Lofven announced on Sunday he would step down in November.

Sweden has attracted much scrutiny by rejecting lockdowns and mostly relying on voluntary measures to combat the spread of the virus.

The strategy has had mixed results, with Sweden’s death rate lower than in many European countries but higher than that of its Nordic neighbours.

Public health officials issued a warning on Monday that the virus was likely to spread more quickly in the autumn with more people needing hospital care.

“All our three scenarios point to increased spread during the autumn,” the public health agency said.

A party congress in November will elect a successor to Mr Lofven as leader of the Social Democrats. That person will then seek approval from parliament.

A great deal can change in Swedish politics
Nicholas Aylott

The position in parliament is precarious after Mr Lofven lost a confidence vote in June but was reinstated when his opponents failed to form a majority.

Nordic bank Nordea said in a commentary that Mr Lofven’s resignation “could make the already tricky political situation even more complicated”.

Passing a budget for 2022 will require difficult negotiations between smaller parties who tolerate Mr Lofven’s government.

Sweden faces a challenge to fix its cherished welfare state after what King Carl XVI Gustaf described as a failure to protect older people from Covid-19.

“Much suggests that it will be a turbulent autumn for Swedish politics,” said Nordea analyst Torbjorn Isaksson.

Groups of people sit in a park at Tantolunden in Stockholm, Sweden, on Friday, May 22, 2020. Sweden, which has refused to close down schools and restaurants to contain the new coronavirus, is being closely watched as many other countries are gradually opening up their economies from stricter lockdowns. Photographer: Loulou D'Aki/Bloomberg

Sweden’s next election is due in September 2022. The previous poll in 2018 ended in stalemate after gains for the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats.

The rise of the far-right party, which blames liberal immigration policies for a rise in violent crime, makes it difficult to form majorities in parliament.

The party has spent recent days warning against an influx of migrants from Afghanistan and raising fears of extremists seeking terrorist training there.

“Sweden faces numerous contemporary policy challenges, not least a rather horrifying level of criminal violence,” said political scientist Nicholas Aylott in an analysis of Mr Lofven’s tenure.

“A great deal can change in Swedish politics now that he's had enough.”

Runners and riders

An early poll for newspaper Aftonbladet showed Ms Andersson favoured by 26 per cent of voters, with the next-most popular candidate on 13 per cent.

Ms Andersson has yet to confirm whether she will seek to replace Mr Lofven. She or Ms Hallengren would be Sweden’s first female prime minister.

Fellow ministers Mikael Damberg, Anders Ygeman, Morgan Johansson and Ibrahim Baylan have also been tipped to run.

Mr Lofven said in his resignation speech that he hoped a new leader would give the Social Democrats fresh momentum.

“Everything has an end and I want to give my successor the very best conditions,” he said.

“I’m also convinced that a new party leader will give the party and the labour movement new energy, which will be needed.”

Updated: August 23, 2021, 3:19 PM