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STOCKHOLM â€” The surprise announcement by Stefan LÃ¶fven that he will resign as Swedenâ€™s prime minister and leader of the Social Democrats has thrown next yearâ€™s general election race wide open.Â
After successfully navigating a period of political turbulence in the early summer, it had appeared that LÃ¶fven, 64, would attempt to secure a third term in office at next Septemberâ€™s vote.
But it was not to be.Â
In his announcement in a speech on Sunday, LÃ¶fven wagered instead that with a new leader his party can secure a restart with voters that will allow it to break a recent deadlock in parliament and render his approach of endless back-room deal-making redundant.
â€œI am convinced that a new leader will give the party new energy, and we are going to need that,â€ LÃ¶fven said.Â
LÃ¶fvenâ€™s move, which will formally occur at a party congress in November, represents an uncharacteristically daring political gamble.
If his successor proves a hit with voters, the Social Democrats could use its stronger mandate to advance a plan to strengthen Swedenâ€™s welfare state. This signature policy has often been on hold under LÃ¶fven as he has sought to win over right-leaning parties in order to retain power.Â Such an outcome would secure LÃ¶fvenâ€™s legacy as a leader who built a foundation upon which his party could reinvent itself.
But if the shift in party leader backfires, the Social Democrats could be sent back into opposition and the decade of painstaking progress LÃ¶fven engineered could be quickly undone.
â€œChanging party leaders is nearly always a dangerous thing,â€ said Ulf Bjereld, a professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg and member of the Social Democrats. â€œEspecially when it is going to happen as quickly as it is now.â€
Potential successors emerge
Candidates to succeed LÃ¶fven now have less than three months to organize their campaigns before a vote is held on a new leader at the Social Democrat congress in Gothenburg in early November.Â
One favorite has already emerged in Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson. A 54-year-old economist who was previously a senior figure in the tax office,Â Andersson has managed the state budget since 2014 and built a reputation as a competent operator.Â
Analysts judge that she is LÃ¶fvenâ€™s preferred successor, noting that he has praised her in speeches and that she has deputized for him on key occasions. The two even gave a joint interview to Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter just last week.Â
Unlike its Nordic neighbors, which are currently all led by women, Sweden has never had a female prime minister, and the Social Democrats are likely to come under pressure to try and change that. Beyond Andersson, Health Minister Lena Hallengren, Employment Minister Eva Nordmark and European Commissioner Ylva Johansson have been named as potential challengers for the leadership.Â
Among the men who could also run to succeed LÃ¶fven are Interior Minister Mikael Damberg, Enterprise Minister Ibrahim Baylan and Social Security Minister Ardalan Shekarabi.
The new leader will face a series of challenges. The first will be to get an election-year budget passed by a fragmented parliament, while at the same time winning back voter support from a resurgent Left Party and a strong far-right in the form of the Sweden Democrats.Â
The left-leaning bloc LÃ¶fven heads â€” made up of the Social Democrats, the Green Party, the Left Party and the Center Party â€” is currently polling narrowly ahead of a four-party, right-leaning bloc. But the true picture of how things stand has now been scrambled and wonâ€™t become clear again until the new Social Democrat leader is in place.
For now, the Social Democrats remain the most popular party, with around 25 percent support, but backing for the party has been in gradual decline for some time and needs to be shored up.
â€œLÃ¶fvenâ€™s successor is going to be tested straight away,â€ said Mats Knutson, a political commentator for national broadcaster SVT. â€œReversing declining opinion polling will be a tough task at a time when the Social Democrats are being forced to fight on a number of fronts, both to the left and the right.â€
For LÃ¶fven, Sundayâ€™s speech marked the beginning of the end of an unlikely career in the world of high politics, which began fairly inauspiciously.Â
A former welder from the north of the country, LÃ¶fven credits his gravitation toward social democracy to his upbringing and his foster mother, who worked helping the elderly.Â
â€œMy mother drove around the villages on her moped and I thought she was cool in the overalls she had to wear during the freezing winter,â€ he said in his speech on Sunday. â€œFrom her, I learned what solidarity means.â€
The working-class credibility of LÃ¶fven, who ran a metalworkersâ€™ union before becoming leader of the Social Democrats, could never be questioned, but his often awkward appearances in televised debates drew criticism and his stiffness was blamed for his partyâ€™s inability to inspire voters.Â
Also, his deal-making â€” which was credited with keeping the Social Democrats in power â€” was also chided for diluting his partyâ€™s message and leaving voters unsure what LÃ¶fven stood for.
Europeâ€™s migration crisis in 2015 and the coronavirus pandemic were his biggest policy challenges, but a host of other issues â€” from rising unemployment to a housing shortage to the increasing use of guns by criminals â€” also cost him political capital.Â
Starting in November, heâ€™ll pass these fights on to someone else.
â€œI have been party leader for 10 years, prime minister for seven,â€ LÃ¶fven said.Â â€œThese have been fantastic years, but everything has an end.â€