Analysis: Why Freivalds had to go

The resignation of Sweden’s foreign minister Laila Freivalds follows more than a year of unrelenting pressure over her handling of Sweden’s response to the South Asian tsunami, and latterly of the Muhammad cartoon row.

Politicians rarely resign in Sweden. The most high-profile in recent times was when Mona Sahlin quit as deputy prime minister in 1995 after buying a Toblerone on her government credit card. Many ministers since then have managed to ride out tough and prolonged questioning – including Freivalds’ temporary successor, Bosse Ringholm, who whilst finance minister was also chairman of a football club accused of tax dodging.

But if resignations are so rare, why has Freivalds gone now?

A reluctant foreign minister, Freivalds, 63, was appointed in 2003 to replace her murdered predecessor, Anna Lindh. This marked a return to high office after a number of years in the political wilderness – she had been forced to resign as minister of justice in 2000 amid controversy over plans to convert her rental apartment block into a condominium, contrary to the official party line.

Her rehabilitation was destined to be short-lived. Freivalds bore the brunt of public anger at the government’s failure to realise how serious the South Asian tsunami was for Swedes.

In last December’s official report into how the Swedish government handled the catastrophe both Persson and Freivalds were held personally responsible for the fact that there was no mechanism in place for dealing with a major crisis.

But it was Freivalds who suffered most from the political fallout. If there was one event that symbolised her mishandling of the event, it was her trip to the theatre on the evening following the tsunami.

This was later interpreted as displaying a lack of sensitivity to the Swedish victims and a dereliction of duty when thousands of Swedish tourists were dead, injured and destitute on the other side of the world.

Yet this was also evidence of Freivalds’ haplessness and lack of political judgment. Göran Persson was no quicker to realise the significance of the tsunami for Sweden, yet his career was much less badly dented. Freivalds’ awkward handling of the press and lack of political nous has much to do with the comparatively rough political ride she endured.

Her role as fall-guy for the government was cemented after December’s Catastrophe Commission report. While calls for Persson’s resignation were few and far between, even the government’s allies in the Green Party were calling for her to go. Opposition parties mulled over the possibility of a vote of no-confidence in the embattled minister.

Persson allowed her to remain at the Foreign Ministry, saying, “I don’t believe firing anyone would soothe the suffering of a single individual.”

But the apparent forced closure of the Sweden Democrats’ website on February 9th, after pictures of the prophet Muhammad had been published on it, renewed the pressure. It proved to be the final blow to Freivalds’ credibility.

Freivalds initially denied having authorised a foreign ministry official to contact the Sweden Democrats’ hosting company, Levonline.

Amid allegations of state censorship, prime minister Göran Persson publicly slammed the civil servant behind the move.

“However strong his personal reasons may be, with a political position as adviser in the foreign ministry he should refrain from this sort of activity,” Persson said at the time.

When one of her own civil servants, Carl Henrik Ehrenkrona, said in testimony to the Chancellor of Justice that Freivalds had indeed known in advance of the contact with Levonline, her already precarious position was weakened further.

Swedish government bodies are banned in the constitution from getting involved in what newspapers, including web-based newspapers, write.

Speaking on Swedish Radio on Monday morning Freivalds said that she had been ‘surprised’ by questions from journalists. She said she believed that they had asked if it was the foreign ministry which had shut the site down.

This explanation was not bought by opposition politicians, and the media pressure failed to abate.

More damagingly, fellow members of the left-wing governing coalition were also piling on the pressure. Green Party spokesman Peter Eriksson, having already called for Freivalds to resign over the tsunami, asked whether she had lied over the cartoons issue. A question to which many argued the answer was yes.

Some, not least Eriksson, have been surprised that Freivalds lasted so long. Persson allowed her to remain despite her tendency to attract negative publicity.

But while in the tsunami crisis Freivalds protected Persson by providing a useful conduit for criticism that might otherwise have been directed at him, in the latest controversy Freivalds only served to bring embarrassment to the government as a whole.

So while the timing may be unfortunate for the Social Democrats – six months almost to the day before the general election – there was little hope of saving Freivalds’ career.