Stockholm (AFP) - Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Loefven called the country's first snap election in over half a century Wednesday after a far-right party torpedoed his two-month-old government's budget in a parliamentary vote.
The announcement of March 22 polls came after the ruling minority coalition failed to push its budget past the populist Sweden Democrats, who refused their support in parliament in response to the government's pro-immigration policies.
The snap vote will be Sweden's first since 1958 and is highly unusual for what is often considered one of Europe's most stable democracies.
The March election "is meant to let voters take a stand in this new political landscape," Loefven said at a briefing.
Loefven's Social Democrats emerged as victors of parliamentary elections in September, joining the Greens in a minority centre-left government that ended eight years of centre-right rule.
However the Sweden Democrats became kingmakers after winning 13 percent of the vote.
Wednesday's drama was centred on the budget, the ruling coalition's version winning only 153 of 349 votes, while a centre-right alternative was passed -- with the help of the Sweden Democrats -- with 182 votes.
The government's proposal contained more public money for job creation and higher taxes for the rich than the opposition's rival proposal.
- 'Referendum on immigration' -
Underlying the right wing's attack on the government was opposition to Sweden's liberal immigration laws, which the Sweden Democrats have described as "extreme."
"The Sweden Democrats want the election to be a referendum on immigration," the party's interim leader Mattias Karlsson said, according to Swedish news agency TT.
Some analysts have pointed out that the centre-right opposition's policies on immigration only differ from the government's in the details.
A high-profile decision to allow all Syrians arriving in Sweden immediate residency in the country was made by the centre-right while in power last year.
Loefven on Wednesday lambasted the four parties in the centre-right opposition for allowing "the Sweden Democrats to get decisive influence."
"They are letting the Sweden Democrats dictate the conditions in Swedish politics," he said.
"I have taken responsibility all along and intend to continue taking responsibility for our country. I will not tacitly accept what is now happening on the right wing," he said.
- 'Competence in question' -
The opposition, on the other hand, criticised Loefven's coalition for allowing the crisis to happen.
"This is a clear failure for the Social Democrats," said Annie Loeoef of the Centre Party, one of the four parties in the opposition, organised in the so-called Alliance.
"Their government's competence has really been put in question," she was quoted as saying by TT.
Both left and right in the Swedish parliament have clearly and publicly announced an unwillingness to work with the Sweden Democrats, which made an exit out of the current crisis difficult.
"Few parties want an early election, but once you're stuck in this way, it's hard to extricate yourself," Ulf Bjereld, a political scientist at Gothenburg University, told the daily Dagens Nyheter.
The Social Democrats' junior partner in the coalition, the Greens, had entered into government for the first time after the September vote, and appeared eager to remain in power.
"We are prepared to negotiate about everything in the budget," the Green Vice Finance Minister Per Bolund told the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.
Even before this week's crisis, Loefven's government got off to a weak start, with relatively low support in opinion polls.
According to a survey carried out by polling service Skop prior to the current crisis, 29 percent of those surveyed approved of the government's actions so far, while 28 percent had unfavourable views.
Analysts say the modest approval ratings reflect, among other things, a view among core Social Democrat voters that the Greens have too much influence in the new coalition.