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Swedish foreign minister resigns over cartoons
21 Mar 2006 12:25:57 GMT
Source: Reuters
(Adds background and analysis)

By Stephen Brown and Johan Sennero

STOCKHOLM, March 21 (Reuters) - Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds quit on Tuesday after a row over the closure of a Web site with cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, embarrassing Prime Minister Goran Persson six months ahead of elections.

Social Democrat (SDP) leader Persson, behind in polls that favour the conservative opposition in September's vote, had for months resisted calls to sack the unpopular minister over her response to the Asian tsunami, in which 500 Swedes died.

But she was forced to resign when it was revealed this week that she had not given full information about her role in the closure of a site belonging to a far-right political party which published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad offensive to Muslims.

"Under the current circumstances I find it impossible to conduct my work and therefore choose to resign," Freivalds said at a joint news conference with the prime minister.

"It was her own decision," said Persson, who had criticised a junior foreign ministry official for putting pressure on a private internet hosting company to close the Web site belonging to an anti-immigrant Swedish political party.

Such pressure violates constitutional guarantees of free speech. Freivalds originally said she did not know her ministry had contacted the company, but documents published this week in the Swedish media proved that she had been informed.

She became the fourth government minister around the world to lose a job over the cartoons originating in Denmark. In Italy a minister resigned after sporting a T-shirt with the cartoons, sparking riots in Libya which cost Libya's interior minister his job. Riots also cost Lebanon's interior minister his post.

ONE LESS PROBLEM?

Analysts do not think foreign policy will play a major role in elections likely to focus on unemployment, but Freivalds has long been an unpopular figure in the government.

Freivalds succeeded the popular Anna Lindh, who was knifed to death in 2003. It was Latvian-born Freivalds' second dramatic exit from Persson's cabinet. She had to quit as justice minister in 2000 over property dealings contrary to government policy.

"This means they will have one less problem and it can't, at any rate, worsen their chances of winning the election," said Mikael Gilljam, politics professor at Gothenburg University.

"I think she should have quit before this," said David Revesz, a Swedish doctor who was in Thailand during the tsunami and had organised a petition calling for her resignation.

Even one of the SDP's parliamentary partners, the Greens, had called for a vote of no confidence against Freivalds over the tsunami. She went to the theatre on the day of the disaster.

"It's good we have finally put an end to this story," said Green Party leader Peter Eriksson.

The Social Democrats, who have governed Sweden for six of the last seven decades, have a minority government which relies on the support of the Greens and the Left party in parliament.

Together they have about 46-47 percent of support in opinion polls versus about 50 percent for the centre-right opposition.

Freivalds will be replaced temporarily by Deputy Prime Minister Bosse Ringholm, who has been ridiculed in the media after twice leaving his phone off the hook after interviews and being heard to make insulting comments about the reporters.

Professor Torbjorn Bergman at Umea University said Persson should choose a woman to replace Freivalds until the election. Foreign aid chief Carin Jamtin has been mooted.

The impact on the election "will not be so great...if they choose a fairly popular foreign minister to replace Freivalds.

"It's not the time to appoint a bloke. Persson has said he wants equality in the government so if a woman quits, another woman should come in," said Bergman. (Additional reporting by Simon Johnson, Eva Odefalk and Niklas Pollard)

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Last updated:Tue Mar 21 12:28:30 2006