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POLITICS

The 5 moments and crises that define the Stefan Löfven era

Stefan Löfven is stepping down as leader of the Social Democrats and as Sweden's prime minister, a position he has held since 2014. Here's a look back at some of the defining moments of his career.

sweden's outgoing prime minister in front of a backdrop of a forest
Stefan Löfven's seven-year stint as Sweden's prime minister has been far from easy. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/TT

1. The 2014 budget crisis and December agreement

Less than three months after winning the election in September 2014, Löfven was met by his first government crisis.

After the Social Democrat-Green Party minority government’s proposed budget was rejected on December 3rd 2014 in favour of the right-wing opposition’s budget, Löfven said he would call a snap election to take place the following March to enable voters to “make a choice in the face of this new political landscape”, which for constitutional reasons couldn’t be formally called until December 29th 2014.

The crisis was caused by the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, who held a kingmaker position, choosing to vote in favour of the opposition’s budget. But two days before the snap election was due to be called, Löfven announced that the crisis had been averted, after talks between Löfven and the country’s four centre-right parties – known then as the Alliance.

The new deal was called the “December Agreement” (decemberöverenskommelsen in Swedish, or simply ) and its goal was to ensure that a minority government could govern Sweden. “With this agreement, the government will not be making any decision about an extra election, it is simply not of immediate interest,” said Löfven at the time.

The deal meant that the opposition would not vote for its own alternative budget in future votes if this threatened the elected government’s budget from getting passed. It was originally meant to end in 2022, but ended up being scrapped less than a year later in October 2015 by the Christian Democrats.

It was the first, but not the last time that Löfven had to navigate a government crisis during his time at the helm.

Stefan Löfven’s press conference in 2014 after the Sweden Democrats said they would topple the government. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

2. The 2015 refugee crisis

Autumn of 2015 offered another challenge for Löfven, which has arguably defined Swedish politics ever since.

In 2015, Sweden took in an unprecedented 163,000 asylum seekers – a shock for the country which was unprepared for so many – authorities had originally predicted as late as June 2015 that the number of asylum seekers applying would be lower than in 2014.

When questioned in 2016 by parliament on how the crisis was handled, Löfven described it as “a great challenge for Swedish society” adding that it was hard to judge the severity of the situation at the time. The government was criticised for waiting until November 2015 to introduce border controls, despite the fact that over 70 percent of refugees arriving to Sweden in 2015 arrived in September.

Löfven defended this decision, explaining that the police and the Migration Agency did not believe that border control requirements had been met before this point. He explained that EU rules on border controls had to be followed, saying that it would be difficult to explain to the EU why the government had introduced border controls before the police deemed it necessary.

Sweden also tightened asylum rules, including making temporary rather than permanent residence permits the norm, a move described at the time as temporary, but which later made it into Sweden’s Migration Act as the Social Democrats toughened its stance on immigration.

Asylum applications have dropped in recent years to below 22,000 in the year before the pandemic (in 2020 the number was below 13,000). Sweden’s stricter migration laws have affected all categories of immigrants, including parents, doctoral students and work permit holders.

Then-Green Party leader Åsa Romson in tears at a press conference where she and Stefan Löfven presented stricter migration laws in 2015. Photo: Marko Säävälä/TT

3. The long post-election negotiations in 2018

Sweden’s elections in September 2018 were too close to call, with neither one party nor one of the coalitions (centre-left: Social Democrats, Green Party, Left Party; centre-right: Moderate Party, Liberal Party, Centre Party, Christian Democrats) winning the 175 seats needed to form a majority government. Support rose for the far-right Sweden Democrats, albeit not as significantly as some polls had suggested it might.

This marked the beginning of a long, drawn-out negotiation period, with discussions continuing for 116 days until Löfven’s Social Democrat-Green coalition government – also known as the red-green coalition – was finally reelected in January 2019. With the coalition only holding 33 percent of seats in parliament, it’s been one of the weakest governments in Swedish history, reliant on support from other parties.

This support was a result of an agreement signed in January 2019, commonly referred to as the januariavtal or January Agreement. It provided backing from the Centre Party and the Liberals to the red-green coalition. In return, the government was bound by policy points set out in the January Agreement.

This agreement lasted until 2021, when the Left Party called a vote of no-confidence against Löfven in protest towards plans to introduce unregulated rent rates in newly built rental apartments (keep reading for more on that).

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf shaking hands with Stefan Löfven in 2019. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

4. The coronavirus pandemic

The outbreak of Covid-19 at the start of 2020 provided yet another challenge for Löfven, with widespread – and ongoing – discussions about Sweden’s unusual pandemic response.

Unlike other countries, Sweden’s politicians were not particularly involved in the early pandemic response, instead handing over authority to the Public Health Agency. This is protected by Swedish law, where ministerial rule of individual agencies and authorities is prohibited. Ministers are not allowed to interfere in day-to-day operations of government agencies, and must instead amend relevant laws if they wish to change the way agencies work.

Additionally, Sweden’s pandemic response, unlike in other countries, was not built on widespread testing, lockdowns or usage of face masks, choosing instead to rely on people’s personal responsibility to keep distance from each other and avoid meeting too many people. It later stepped up testing efforts and the government introduced a series of laws, including restricting opening hours for restaurants.

This has been widely discussed both within and outside Sweden, with the independent Coronavirus Commission due to release a report on this aspect of the pandemic response in February 2022. The commission’s report from October 2021 painted a damning portrait of other parts of the response, describing aspects as a “complete failure”. Löfven described this choice of words as “a bit of a stretch”.

Stefan Löfven giving a televised address to the nation in March 2020.
Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

5. The 2021 vote of no confidence

As previously mentioned briefly, Löfven lost a vote of no-confidence called by the Left Party in summer 2021, after a proposal to introduce unregulated rents in newly built properties. He was the first prime minister in modern Swedish history to lose such a vote.

Löfven remained prime minister during this time as part of a caretaker government, eventually being re-elected just weeks later after 173 MPs voted against him – two shy of the 175 MP limit required for him to not be re-elected.

After the re-election, Löfven continued as Sweden’s prime minister with an almost identical cabinet, despite the fact that the January Agreement – and therefore his support – was technically no longer in effect. In practice, parties have continued to follow this agreement, with the red-green coalition now tacitly supported by the Centre Party and the Left Party.

Just over a month later, on August 22nd 2021, Löfven announced his plans to resign as party leader and as prime minister at the party congress in November, after seven years as prime minister and ten as leader of the Social Democrats.

His expected successor in both roles is current Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson, who has been approved by the Social Democrats to take over as their leader. To become prime minister, she will have to approved by parliament. If successful, she will become Sweden’s first female prime minister.

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SWEDEN ELECTS

Sweden Elects: How powerful are the Sweden Democrats now?

The Local's editor Emma Löfgren explains how Sweden's parliamentary committees work – and the role the Sweden Democrats will play in them.

Sweden Elects: How powerful are the Sweden Democrats now?

Hej,

The speaker of parliament has given Ulf Kristersson, leader of the conservative Moderates and the likely next prime minister of Sweden, October 12th as a deadline to conclude his government negotiations.

If Kristersson comes up with a viable proposal for a ruling coalition, the speaker will put that proposal to parliament within four days. Chances are Sweden will have its new right-wing government by mid-October.

What will that government look like? Most likely, it will consist of at least the Moderates and the Christian Democrats. Rumours have it Kristersson is hoping to bring the Liberals into the governmental fold, and it is unlikely that the far-right Sweden Democrats will be part of the government.

But anyone who thinks the latter means they will be left on the sidelines is mistaken. They will have demanded significant concessions in order to support Kristersson’s government (and especially to make way for the Liberals) from parliament, and judging from recent news, they got them.

In a joint press release last week, the right wing – the Moderates, Christian Democrats, Liberals and Sweden Democrats – said they had reached a deal on how to share responsibility for their parliamentary committees.

There are 15 committees in the Swedish parliament, seats on which are held by members of parliament, with larger parties getting more seats as well as more high-ranking roles such as chair and deputy chair.

The right wing is after this election entitled to 16 chair and deputy chair roles, and the Sweden Democrats will get half of those, the parties agreed. The key thing that many political pundits were keeping an eye on was which committees, as that tells us a lot about how far they got in their negotiations with the other right-wing parties. The answer: far.

The Sweden Democrats will get to chair the Justice, Foreign Affairs, Labour Market, and Industry and Trade Committees – all heavyweight committees. 

Their most high-profile appointment is Richard Jomshof, one of the most senior Sweden Democrats who in the run-up to the election gave an anti-Islam speech (not the first time). He will chair the Justice Committee.

The Moderates will chair the Finance and Social Insurance Committees (plus the EU Committee), the Christian Democrats will chair the Health and Welfare Committee, and the Liberals will chair the Education Committee.

On the other side, the left-wing parties will get to chair the Defence, Taxation, Constitution, Civil Affairs, Transport and Communications, Environment and Agriculture, and Cultural Affairs Committees.

So what exactly do the parliamentary committees do, and how much influence will the Sweden Democrats now have over legislation?

The votes of every member of the committees count equally (there are at least 15 members on every committee, representing the various parties from left to right), and the chair gets the final vote if there’s a tie. He or she also has influence over the committee’s agenda and over how meetings are directed, with the position also bringing prestige.

All government bills and proposals by members of parliament first go through one of the committees before they can be put to the main chamber for a vote. The committee adopts a position on the proposal and although the final decision rests with the 349 members of the main chamber, they usually vote for the committee’s position since the make-up of their members represent the parties in parliament.

Although chair positions give them a procedural advantage, the Sweden Democrats won’t have unlimited power over their committees, since as I said, the other parties have seats too and their votes count equally.

The main benefit for the Sweden Democrats is rather the soft power it gives them. The chair is the face of the parliamentary committee, and these senior roles will force the other parties to take them seriously.

Another aspect to bear in mind is that they’ll have enough seats on each committee that they will have a key kingmaker role where they can side either with the government or the opposition – giving them fairly significant negotiating power when it comes to future legislation.

In other news, the Swedish parliament last week re-elected the popular Andreas Norlén as speaker, it’s been taking much longer than usual to get a work permit (here’s why) and foreigners are calling for the Migration Agency to issue special visas to allow those affected by renewal delays to leave Sweden and return, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has stopped leaking gas, and households in Sweden are starting to feel the economic squeeze.

In the latest episode of our Sweden in Focus podcast, host Paul O’Mahony is joined by Handelsbanken chief economist Johan Löf, as well as The Local’s Becky Waterton, Richard Orange and James Savage.

Many thanks to everyone who’s got in touch lately with your thoughts and feedback about Sweden Elects. I’m happy it’s useful to you. If you have any questions about Swedish politics, you’re always welcome to get in touch.

Best wishes,

Emma

Sweden Elects is a weekly column by Editor Emma Löfgren looking at the big talking points and issues in the Swedish election race. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive the column as a newsletter in their email inbox each week. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.

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