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POLITICS

How Stefan Löfven lost his hold on the Swedish parliament

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has weathered the decline of social democracy in Europe, the rise of the far right and even the Covid-19 pandemic, but he finally tripped up on Monday, losing a historic vote of no confidence in Sweden's parliament.

How Stefan Löfven lost his hold on the Swedish parliament
Stefan Löfven in the Riksdag. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

The 63-year-old Löfven, a former welder and union leader with the square build and nose of a boxer, guided the Swedish left back to power in 2014, and then hung on by moving his party closer to the centre-right after the 2018 elections.

A master of consensus for some, a dull and visionless party man for others, he finally fell out with the Left Party propping up his government, becoming the first Swedish government leader to be defeated by a no confidence vote.

“Sweden is in a difficult political situation, a very difficult one,” Löfven told a press conference following his defeat.

He has a week to choose between elections or resignation. It may however be too early to count out the man who emerged victorious from elections deemed lost in 2018, and it’s possible his negotiating skills could forge a new majority.

Born in Stockholm in 1957, poverty forced his single mother to give him up when he was 10 months old to a foster family in Sollefteå, 500 kilometres (310 miles) north of the capital, where his foster father was a factory worker.

He became a welder and spent 15 years in a defence factory, and head of the metal workers’ union from 2006 to 2012.

‘Houdini’

While the traditional left struggled in Europe — only six social democratic or socialist heads of government remain in the 27-member EU — Löfven managed to stay on top, even though he confused supporters by moving to the right, earning a reputation as a “right-wing socialist”.

“Stefan Löfven could go down in history for his inventiveness and willingness for sacrifices to keep the Social Democrats in power,” political commentator Ewa Stenberg wrote in Dagens Nyheter newspaper at the weekend.

“The Prime Minister has survived many crises,” Stenberg said, adding that he now faces his greatest test so far.

“He now needs to do the political equivalent of what escape artist Harry Houdini did over a hundred years ago,” she said, stressing several seemingly impossible political knots had to be untied.

While controversial, the decision to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic with mainly non-coercive measures was not what weakened him.

In fact, the Swedish strategy, promoted by state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, boosted his ratings in opinion polls, even as the death toll rose to over 14,000 in the country of 10.3 million people, a far worse toll than in Nordic neighbours.

Challenging the Swedish model

The political crisis erupted on Thursday when the Left Party, which has propped up the government in parliament, said it was ready to support a motion of no confidence against the prime minister, even if it meant mixing votes with those of the right-wing parties and the far-right Sweden Democrats.

The reason was a preliminary plan to reform rent controls, potentially freeing landlords to set rents for new apartments.

On the left, the proposal is considered at odds with the Swedish social model and a threat to tenants’ rights.

While having become accustomed to threats from the Left Party, which until now have never materialised, Löfven was trapped as he also felt bound by a deal signed with two centre-left parties, the Centre Party and the Liberals.

The deal included proposals for liberal market reforms which irked the Left Party, and secured power for the Social Democrats but it was also seen as a move to the right.

And it reminded people of another perceived lurch to the right in November 2015, when the government abruptly closed the doors to most immigrants after Sweden had already taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees, notably from Syria.

By Marc Preel/AFP

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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

What’s the Swedish Christian Democrats’ abortion contract all about?

Ebba Busch, leader of Sweden's Christian Democrats on Monday presented an "abortion contract", which she wants all of Sweden's party leaders to sign. What's going on?

What's the Swedish Christian Democrats' abortion contract all about?

What’s happened? 

Ebba Busch, leader of Sweden’s Christian Democrat party, called a press conference on Monday in which she presented a document that she called “an abortion contract”, which was essentially a pledge to safeguard the right of women in Sweden to have an abortion.  

“There is room for signatures from all eight party leaders,” she said. “I have already signed on behalf of the Christian Democrats.” 

What does the so-called “abortion contract” say? 

The document itself is fairly uncontroversial.

It states simply that Sweden’s law on abortion dates back to 1974, and that it grants women the right to an abortion up until the 18th week of pregnancy, with women seeking abortions later in their pregnancy required to get permission from the National Board of Health and Welfare. 

“Those of us who have signed this document support Sweden’s abortion legislation and promise to defend it if it comes under attack from forces both within our country and from outside,” the document reads.  

Why have the Christian Democrats produced it? 

The decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade, and so allow US states to ban abortion has aroused strong feelings in Sweden, as elsewhere, and Busch is seeking to send a strong signal to distance her own Christian party from the US religious right. 

Abortion has been a recurring issue within the Christian Democrats with several politicians and party members critical of abortion. 

Lars Adaktusson, a Christian Democrat MP, was found by the Dagens Nyheter newspaper to have voted against abortion 22 times when he was a member of the European parliament. 

The party has also in the past campaigned for the right of midwives and other medical professionals who are ethically opposed to abortion not to have to take part in the procedure. 

So why aren’t all the other party leaders signing the document? 

Sweden’s governing Social Democrats, and their Green Party allies, dismissed the contract as a political gimmick designed to help the Christian Democrats distance themselves from elements of their own party critical of abortion. 

“It would perhaps be good if Ebba Busch did some homework within her own party to check that there’s 100 percent support for Sweden’s abortion legislation,” Magdalena Andersson, Sweden’s prime minister, said. “That feels like a more important measure than writing contracts between party leaders and trying to solve it that way.”  

In a debate on Swedish television, Green Party leader Märta Stenevi argued that it would be much more significant if Busch’s own MPs and MEPs all signed the document. 

It wasn’t other party leaders who needed to show commitment to abortion legislation, but “her own MPs, MEPs, and not least her proposed government partners in the Sweden Democrats and even some within the Moderate Party”. 

She said it made her “very very worried” to see that the Christian Democrats needed such a contract. “That’s why I see all this more as a clear sign that we need to move forward with protecting the right to abortion in the constitution,” she said. 

How have the other right-wing parties reacted? 

The other right-wing parties have largely backed Busch, although it’s unclear if any other party leaders are willing to actually sign the document. 

Tobias Billström, the Moderates’ group parliamentary leader, retweeted a tweet from Johan Paccamonti, a Stockholm regional politician with the Moderate Party, which criticised the Social Democrats for not signing it, however. 

“It seems to be more important to blow up a pretend conflict than to sign the Christian Democrats’ contract or look at the issue of [including abortion rights in] the constitution, like the Moderates, Liberals and Centre Party want to,” Paccamonti wrote. 

The Liberal Party on Sunday proposed protecting abortion rights in the Swedish constitution, a proposal which has since been backed by the Moderate party and the Centre Party

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