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Sweden: How the First Female PM Had To Resign Hours After Her Appointment—And Then Returned

On 24 November 2021 at 10:02 CET, Magdalena Andersson from the centre-left Social Democrats (S-S&D) was approved by parliament as Sweden’s first female prime minister. Hours later at 17:30 CET, she resigned as prime minister making headlines throughout the world. Her budget was defeated on the same day which made her coalition partner the Greens (MP-G/EFA) leave the government. But this was not the end for Andersson. Days later on 29 November, she was approved again as prime minister. This chaos unfolded with elections scheduled just nine months from now. In this article, we will try to explain how the already unruly politics in Sweden could have ended up like it did

The prelude

The story behind the chaos started in July 2021 when former Prime Minister Stefan Löfven (S-S&D) formed his third government with Miljöpartiet (MP-G/EFA), after his second government was defeated weeks earlier in a passed motion of no confidence over a deregulation in the housing market. Yet, Löfven’s third government had a more unstable position in parliament than the second one. The centre-left-green minority coalition was tolerated and passively supported by the Left Party (V-LEFT), liberal Centre Party (C-RE), the left-wing independent member of parliament Amineh Kakabaveh (*) and a rebel from the Liberals (L-RE). But Löfven was unable to strike policy agreements with these tolerators making the passing of a budget through parliament extremely difficult. Especially as C ruled out any budgetary negotiation with V.

But Löfven would not be the one solving that problem. In August 2021—a month after his third government was approved—he surprisingly announced his intention to resign as the prime minister and the party leader of S.

Right from the moment Löfven announced his resignation, it was widely assumed Magdalena Andersson would succeed him. She was finance minister under all three Löfven governments and her approval ratings are better than those of other party leaders. The Swedish Social Democrats have a peculiar party culture in which one cannot apply or run for party leader. One is nominated by the rest of the party. And indeed, Andersson was nominated and later officially elected as the leader of S at the party’s conference on 4 November. 

Andersson’s path to and away from power

After Andersson’s election as party leader, Löfven officially tendered the resignation of his government. Goal was that Andersson would be approved by parliament and then succeed Löfven as prime minister very soon after. However, the prospect of again having to elect a new prime minister opened a window of opportunity for the liberal C and the left-wing V to demand extra policy leverage in exchange for approving Andersson. C demanded changes in Sweden’s strict nature protection laws while labour market reforms would not be postponed. V demanded a confidence and supply agreement with Andersson, something that they did not get from Löfven months earlier. 

A further complication was the budget that also had to be approved. In Sweden every party has to table a budget either alone or together with another party, after which the budget with plurality of votes in parliament wins and must be enforced—no matter the government. This is what made the S-MP minority government so weak. S and MP have 116 out of 349 and hence 33% of the seats in parliament compared to three opposition parties—the centre-right Moderates (M-EPP), the Christian Democrats (KD-EPP) and the national-conservative Sweden Democrats (SD-ECR)—that tabled a budget too, assembling 154 seats and 44% of the parliament. In order for Andersson to pass her budget she needs the support from both V and C. And let it be that C vetoes any budgetary negotiation with V. Andersson’s solution was to copy policies from V and C into the budget hoping that both parties would vote for it. For V, the budget contained policies aimed at significantly decreasing income inequality. For C, the budget contained several tax cuts and extra investment for rural areas. 

Meanwhile the investiture negotiations with C and V were tougher than Andersson had anticipated. C’s demands were painful for coalition partner MP and giving too much to V could cause C to vote against Andersson. In the end, S and MP managed to get an agreement with C on the nature protection laws in order for C to support the government. In order to get an agreement with V, Andersson set a deadline hoping that negotiations with V would come to a positive conclusion faster. On 22 November, she put herself forward to be voted on as prime minister and the vote to be taking place two days later—the same day as the budget vote. And within a day S, V and MP reached an agreement on passing the budget: V would tolerate Andersson becoming prime minister and vote for her pending budget in exchange for a pension increase.

The next morning on 24 November before both Andersson’s and her budget’s fate would be determined, it was still unclear how C thought of the S-V-MP-agreement. Party leader for C, Annie Lööf, gave a press conference bare minutes before the vote on Andersson. She announced that C would also tolerate Andersson becoming prime minister. However, the party would vote for its own budget and not the government’s. This practically meant that the right-wing budget from M, KD and SD would win the most votes—which it indeed did a few hours after Andersson’s election as prime minister—as the parties that had agreed to support Andersson’s premiership could not agree in time whose budget from amongst them to support. The freshly elected centre-left prime minister must now govern on a right-wing budget from the opposition. Parenthetically, such a situation of a government being forced to govern on an opposition budget is not unprecedented and has happened several times earlier in Swedish politics.

Nevertheless, the opposition budget that passed this time is different, as it is the first ever passed budget that was negotiated also by the Sweden Democrats. For the Greens, the prospect of governing on a budget from SD with cuts in environmental policies was unbearable. MP therefore—minutes after the opposition budget passed—announced it would quit the government. However, the party also spoke out its willingness to support an Andersson minority government consisting of only S.

The problem in MP’s decision was that Andersson was elected as prime minister on the promise of leading a government of both S and MP, not of S alone. So legally, she had no choice but to resign—seven hours after being appointed—in order to make a new investiture vote on a solo S-government possible. Five days later on 29 November, Andersson was again elected as Sweden’s prime minister with the support from C, V, MP and independent member of parliament Kakabaveh.

What next?

Prime Minister Andersson will thus be leading a government consisting only of S for nine months until the regular scheduled elections in September 2022. However, with only 28% of seats in parliament it will be the weakest government Sweden has had in decades. Furthermore, the coalition of S, C, V, MP and Kakabaveh that allowed her to become prime minister has a parliamentary majority of just one single seat, 175 to 174. This is crucial in possible motions of no confidence that might be tabled in upcoming weeks against single ministers. Meanwhile, as Swedish governments have to present at least two budgets every year, Andersson risks being defeated in yet another budget vote next spring, considering the difficulty of uniting C and V behind a single budget while M, SD and KD will likely again be able to propose a budget proposition themselves.

There are in practice two blocs collectively competing for power in Swedish politics: one that allows Andersson to be prime minister with one seat more than the one forming the right-of-centre opposition. The Centre Party previously belonged to a centre-right bloc with M, KD and L. After the rapid rise of the Sweden Democrats and C trying to isolate them, the party flipped in 2019 and has since then supported a centre-left prime minister—first Löfven and now Andersson. However, the party aims to not play according to this bloc politics any longer and pleads for a grand coalition in the centre with the two biggest parties S and M while isolating V and SD on both flanks. However, neither S nor M seem interested in forming any kind of coalition with each other. S and M prefer cooperation within their respective blocs over forming a government together and say that the Centre Party has got to choose to which side they belong.

C voted for Andersson becoming prime minister saying that she is ‘the only guarantee to keep the far-right from power’, referring to the Sweden Democrats. But they did not vote for her budget in order to mark their discontent with the deal between S, MP and V while saying that any government’s budget must be embedded in the centre. And if C did support that budget, it would have cemented the party into a left-of-centre block obliterating the credibility of its promise to form a centrist coalition after the upcoming elections. 

All in all, Prime Minister Andersson managed to return to office. But her path to Rosenbad—the office of Sweden’s prime minister—was much less smooth as planned. People are still arguing whose fault it is that the day Sweden got its first female prime minister became historic for whole different reasons. Is the blame on Andersson for breaching C’s veto against budgetary negotiations with V? On Lööf’s Centre Party, who approved a new government only to vote against its budget hours later? On the Greens who quit the government mere hours after its appointment? Or on Löfven whose surprising resignation as party leader and prime minister eventually led to the chaotic situation on 24 November? Yet one thing is sure; Swedish politics will experience a tumultuous time with elections scheduled just nine months away from now.