COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Sweden's prime minister said Wednesday he will call for new elections on March 22 after an anti-immigration party helped opposition lawmakers reject the left-leaning minority government's budget proposal.
Social Democrat Stefan Lofven, who took office just over two months ago, saw his first budget dismissed as the far-right Sweden Democrats Party sided with the center-right opposition. 182 lawmakers voted against and 153 in favor of the budget in Parliament Wednesday, prompting the first call for early elections in Sweden in over 50 years.
The Sweden Democrats, the only party that opposes the Scandinavian country's famed liberal immigration laws, had sworn to topple the government and said the next election would hinge on immigration issues.
"We will do our best to ensure the early elections become a referendum for or against immigration," Sweden Democrats spokesman Matthias Karlsson told a news conference, adding the party thinks immigration swallows too much of Sweden's resources.
The Sweden Democrats' opposition to the budget proposal was considered a major political breakthrough for the group that became the country's third-largest party in the 349-seat Parliament two months ago. With right-wing extremist roots, the party stands alone in Swedish politics and despite efforts to soften its image all other groups have refused to work with it.
"The Sweden Democrats really have played tough. They want to steer Swedish politics," said Drude Dahlerup, a political science professor at Stockholm University.
A leading local daily, Dagens Nyheter, on Wednesday wrote in an editorial that "racism has taken Sweden hostage."
"That says a lot about what is happening," Dahlerup said, adding that the party, which has sworn to vote against any grouping that favors immigration, could suffer a setback in the March elections.
In 2012, some 20 percent of Sweden's 10 million inhabitants had foreign roots, including people from western countries, according to official figures. In recent years, immigrants have come mainly from Iraq, Poland, Afghanistan and Syria.
Lofven, who became prime minister as head of a coalition with the Greens after the September elections, has to wait until at least Dec. 29 to officially call the new election according to Sweden's Constitution.
He has indicated he will remain in office until the new elections are held, but voiced disappointment after prolonged talks with various parties, including the center-right opposition, broke down late Tuesday.
He said the ruling coalition had been willing to cooperate with several parties, except the Sweden Democrats.
"I cannot let the Sweden Democrats dictate the conditions," he said after the Parliament vote, describing the anti-immigration group as "irresponsible."
Lofven came to power promising to reverse many reforms by the previous center-right government, including pro-market policies and tax cuts that many feared have undermined the country's welfare system.
He promised to raise income tax for high earners, increase benefits for the unemployed and sick, and boost the defense budget.
From the start, his minority government — which holds 138 seats in parliament — was expected to struggle to push its agenda through. With the support of the former Communist Left Party, which stands outside the Cabinet, it controls 159 seats.
The center-right opposition, made up of four parties, has 141 seats, but the extra votes — from the 49 Sweden Democrats — were enough to topple the ruling coalition.
Associated Press reporter Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki contributed to this report.