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STOCKHOLM -Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven caught many off guard on Sunday, saying he would resign in November ahead of a general election in September 2022 to give his successor a chance to improve the Social Democrats' standing in the polls.
Lofven has been prime minister since 2014, heading two coalition governments with the Green Party that have lurched from crisis to crisis, unable to command a majority in parliament.
The most recent setback saw Lofven, a former welder and union leader, resign in June after losing a no-confidence vote.
He was returned to office by parliament in July when the leader of the biggest opposition party, the Moderates, failed to get enough backing to form a new government.
"In next year's election campaign the Social Democrats will be led by someone else than me," Lofven said at the end of his annual summer speech. "Everything has an end and I want to give my successor the very best conditions."
He said he would step down at the party's congress in November.
Lofven's Social Democrats have dominated Swedish politics for generations, but their support - like that of left-of-centre parties across much of Europe - has gradually eroded.
In addition, the rise of the Sweden Democrats, a populist, anti-immigration party, has made forming majority governments almost impossible.
The Social Democrats will probably benefit ahead of the elections from having a new leader, Uppsala University political scientist Torsten Svensson told Reuters.
"The fact he takes the initiative himself, not resigning after explicit demands for it, and the fact they get to launch the election campaign with a new face is a big plus," he said.
Lofven's possible successors include current Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson, Health Minister Lena Hallengren and Minister of the Interior Mikael Damberg, he said.
Lofven took over the leadership of the Social Democrats in 2012, when their support was at an all-time low and managed to return them to power after eight years of centre-right rule.
He got a second term in 2018, but only when two centre-right parties swapped sides, leaving Lofven caught between their demands and those of the Left Party, whose support he has also needed.
His successor is likely to have similar problems as opinion polls show the centre-right and centre-left blocs still deadlocked. The government currently does not have the support it will need to pass a budget in the autumn.
Magnus Hagevi, political scientist at the Linnaeus University, said the resignation was not a surprise considering that Lofven had been on the job for a long time.
"He does this at a time that gives the successor a chance to step into his shoes ahead of the next parliamentary election," he said, adding that possible successors include Energy Minister Anders Ygeman as well as Andersson. REUTERS