Persson passes the buck for Swedish tsunami reaction

Prime Minister Göran Persson is under pressure after he blamed civil servants for his slow reaction to the tsunami in South East Asia. Questions are being asked over how Persson could have been in the dark for a whole day about the seriousness of the situation in Thailand, where hundreds of Swedes perished.

The Swedish foreign ministry received faxes from the Swedish Embassy in Bangkok on 26th December, the day of the earthquake, confirming that many Swedes were injured. Persson says that he was not informed of this until the 27th. Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds has also said that she was not informed of the gravity of the situation faced by Swedes in the region.

“It is absolutely clear that there were incoming faxes at the foreign ministry of which we were not made aware,” Persson told reporters on Wednesday.

He said that he was aware on the 26th that the situation in Asia was serious, but claimed that he did not know that there were Swedish casualties. When asked what he himself had done to chase up information from the embassy, he told reporters that he did what he was supposed to:

“I contacted my state secretary, and asked him to inform me about the situation. He contacted the foreign ministry, which said that the situation was being monitored and was under control.”

Asked whether he believed that civil servants were responsible for the failings, he replied: “Yes, it isn’t politicians who handle incoming information.”

The foreign ministry told Svenska Dagbladet that it had done its duty. Mikael Westerlind, head of security, said that the duty officers had forwarded the faxes to the relevant departments. Westerlind indicated that civil service protocol prevented them from taking more urgent steps:

“Duty officers don’t ring the prime minister,” he said, “and its not my business what information Göran Persson received.”

But should Persson have needed a fax from Bangkok to realise that the situation in Thailand was serious?

Even on the 26th, tour operators were expressing their concern on television, radio and the online versions of the newspapers. In a front page leading article, Dagens Nyheter writer Henrik Brors argues that in 2004 people no longer get their information by fax. He says that Persson should have known what was happening:

“Everyone in Sweden could hear the alarm from the Swedish Embassy in Thailand on the 26th, when the second-in-command at the embassy was interviewed on the radio. It was impossible to misunderstand his assessment – this was a crisis, and many Swedes were affected.”

Meanwhile, the centre-right opposition has gone on the attack. Centre Party leader Maud Olofsson criticized Persson for making scapegoats of civil servants:

“I think it’s very bad leadership if political leaders don’t take responsibility for this situation,” she said.

And the criticism seems to be hurting Persson in the polls. A new poll shows that the opposition would have won a majority of the seats in parliament if an election had been held in the week after the catastrophe. The governing left-wing coalition was favoured by 46.9 percent of voters; the opposition had a four percent lead, with 51.3 percent.

The pollsters also gauged people’s reaction to the disaster. Forty-seven percent said that they already realized on 26th December that many Swedes were affected.

The opposition greeted the poll with caution, but said it was bad news for the government. “Voters usually rally around the government during a crisis,” said Sven Otto Littorin, secretary of the Moderate Party, “but that depends on it demonstrating empathy and competence.”

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Aftonbladet, Sveriges Radio