The Harry Houdini of European politics is plotting his latest escape.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven already evaded two potential government collapses in the second half of 2020 alone, one over migration policy and another over labor market rules. Earlier in his six-year tenure, he disarmed two seemingly inevitable snap elections after striking backroom deals to stay in power.
Now, as evidence of failings within Sweden’s maverick light-touch coronavirus strategy mounts, Löfven’s latest act of escapology is underway.After a government-appointed commission’s report slammed the authorities’ failure to protect the elderly from COVID-19, Löfven this week launched a media offensive in which he spread the idea not that he had been wholly right all along, but that his political opponents carried responsibility for what had gone wrong.
“The Coronavirus Commission’s report has come and it splits the responsibility,” Löfven said in an interview with public service television on Tuesday. “Some of it falls on us, some of it falls on previous governments, some on municipalities, some on regional authorities,” he said.
It was a sign of how Löfven plans to play the fallout of a pandemic that has so far cost more than 8,000 Swedish lives. He isn’t going to blame his own ministers, or the Public Health Authority and its chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, in the first instance.
Instead, Löfven looks set to push a narrative that eight years of center-right rule between 2006 and 2014, when his Social Democrats took over, undercut funding for elderly care and left it vulnerable to the pandemic. He is zeroing in on the role of locally elected officials, who steer much of the health and elderly care system in Sweden, because many, including those running Stockholm, belong to opposition parties.
“The government’s and the prime minister’s strategy is a typical example of so-called politics of blame avoidance,” said Tommy Möller, a political scientist at Stockholm University.
Löfven’s strategy has the added advantage of allowing him to say, as he did this week, that Sweden needs to rebuild its welfare system, because surveys show Swedish voters trust the Social Democrats most on welfare policy — whether or not that trust is founded.
Just under two years out from the next election in Sweden, there are signs that Löfven’s calculations are working. A survey by pollster Novus in mid-December showed he is the most trusted party leader and the Social Democrats also remain top in opinion polling, at around 27 percent support.
Despite the rickety nature of his five-party governing coalition, he is six years in power and could well make it to two full terms, against the odds.
Former political opponent Anna Kinberg Batra, who led the largest opposition party, the Moderates, between 2015 and 2017, recently acknowledged Löfven’s ability to somehow keep winning, characterizing his steady demeanor and shrewd ability to set opponents against each other.
“Now we have the worst crisis in living memory and there he sits looking confident and a lot of people fall for it, hats off to him,” she told Swedish business site Dagens Industri in November.
On the streets of Stockholm, conversations with locals passing parliament suggested Löfven’s secret may be that his sensible, even dour, image remains appealing during a crisis when voters want someone serious in charge.
“He is credible, and people trust him, and it seems like he does his best,” said Mikael Halldin, 40, a deacon at a nearby church.
Löfven was born in Stockholm in 1957 but was moved to a foster family in northern Sweden as a 1-year-old. He credits his foster mother, in particular her charity work with the elderly, for his decision to become a Social Democrat, a movement he says is based on solidarity.
“From my mother I learnt what solidarity and compassion mean in practice,” he said in a 2017 speech.
After military service, Löfven began working for a military equipment-maker, where he became a union representative. In 2006, he became the head of the metalworkers union IF Metall. After earning a reputation as a canny negotiator there, he was elected leader of the Social Democrats in 2012 after a period of turmoil in the party under two unsuccessful chiefs.
In 2014, he edged a general election before skillfully avoiding a snap election a year later after striking a series of deals with opposition parties, which allowed him to form a functioning government. After another narrow win in 2018 he managed to split the four-party center-right opposition in two, drawing the Liberals and the Center Party — led by arguably his most successful critic Annie Lööf — into a loose new coalition with the Social Democrats.
His premiership has seen its fair share of ineptitude, including a faltering economy, endless questions over policing and migration policy — most dangerously for him in 2015 when a surge of asylum seekers overwhelmed border services — and a seemingly intractable clash between allies on the right and left over labor market rules.
But he is still running the country.
In early December, Löfven appeared to have overseen a resolution of the labor market issue when a new deal on employees’ rights was struck by unions and employers’ groups and the Left Party put a threat to collapse the government on hold.
The weeks ahead will be key for Löfven as he bids to prevent the coronavirus crisis bringing back that threat.
As he tries to convince voters that responsibility for previous failures was not solely his, he must also convince people to take personal responsibility for slowing the spread of the disease by abstaining from almost all social activity.
In his interview with Swedish public service television on Tuesday, it was clear Löfven — and his wife Ulla — were going to try and do that in part through leading by example.
“Ulla and I will celebrate Christmas in an unusual way this year,” he said. “We are going to celebrate on our own.”