On a cold February night in 1986, Olof Palme and his wife, Lisbet, started making their way home after a night out at the Grand Cinema in Stockholm. At about twenty past eleven, while walking on Sveavägen, a man in a dark overcoat approached the couple from behind, drew out a revolver and shot.
There were no bodyguards at the scene, just a taxi driver who raised the alarm and two young girls, sitting close by, who tried to help. Palme was rushed to hospital but was dead on arrival. Mrs Palme was lightly wounded, and recovered. The attacker disappeared into the night, leaving behind him one of the greatest crime mysteries in Swedish history and a shocked and disbelieving nation.
Two decades after the shooting, Palme’s political legacy is far from unifying.
“Olof Palme was basically a reformer, but he was also one of our country’s great speakers and agitators. His passionate commitment and challenging terminology aroused strong feelings,” wrote Gunilla Banks for the Palme center.
“Some individuals disliked him to the point of hatred and pursued a virtual persecution of his person. But the majority of Swedes sensed his strong solidarity with the social and economic aspirations of the Swedish people.”
Palme was no typical Swedish politician. He was a radical, outspoken and charismatic leader advocating peace, socialism and solidarity. His foreign policy is still a subject of much discussion.
He was an opponent of the Vietnam War and the Cold War; he fought against Apartheid and adopted the causes of many oppressed peoples around the world. It seems this part of Palme’s legacy has been carried on with a slight change of style.
“Some of Palme’s legacy still exists but most of it disappeared,” said Ann Marie Ekengren, a political scientist from Gothenburg University to DN.
“Swedish foreign policy still emphasizes people’s rights and that the UN is still the natural arena for solving conflicts. The difference is that you can no longer criticize other states. In Palme’s time the government was very critical of dictatorships as well as superpowers.”
On the domestic front, Palme’s legacy is still disputed. As MP, cabinet minister and party leader he was responsible for many reforms, including education reforms and switching Swedish traffic from left to right.
As prime minister in the 70s and 80s, he enforced a strict policy of maintaining the Swedish welfare state and protecting the values that made it an alternative to Soviet Communism and American Capitalism. Two decades later, the conflict continues.
“A great deal of Palme’s domestic policy is still here,” says his finance minister, Kjell Olof Feldt.
“Many employment and salary related laws were passed during Palme’s years. We called it economic democracy.”
Though Feldt is today sceptical about some of Palme’s ideas it is clear that his beliefs in a centralized and equal society with full employment and a strong welfare system are still at the heart of the Swedish political debate.
The issues remain relevant, but has Sweden forgotten the man? Palme rose fast through the ranks of Swedish politics. As a Stockholm student, he was discovered by Prime Minister Tage Erlander who hired him as an aide and speech writer. From there on it was a 16 year long political journey until his first term as prime minister. But political stardom fades fast and political memories are short: many say Palme has been forgotten.
“Sure, the younger people don’t really know who he was, but his speeches and texts are still relevant,” said his son, Mårten, recently to the Expressen daily.
“It is hard to give an historical account of his life – in many ways his life and actions are still too relevant to current political debate.” And if the young don’t know who he was, Mårten Palme says that there is no doubting his father’s continued impact on older generations.
He also tells Expressen that people still react strangely when he introduces himself. “People are still angry at him,” he says. The controversy around Palme, it seems, is still very much alive.
The controversy is even stronger because the crime was never solved. To this day the identity of the killer remains unknown. A petty criminal and drug addict, Christer Petersson, was convicted in 1988 only to be acquitted later. The police investigation, which many say was sloppy, has cost 350 million SEK, so far. Naturally there are many conspiracy theories and cover up accusations. The Swedish extreme right, South African spies, the C.I.A and the PKK are some of the popular suspects.
This week saw the broadcast of a new television documentary, which claimed that the police destroyed evidence that may have been linked to the killing and that a policeman was indirectly involved in the events of February 1986. According to the film, Palme was the victim of mistaken identity and the incident was part of a turf war among local drug dealers. Petersson, who remains the main suspect, died in 2004.
Many of the people who gathered near the spot where Palme was gunned down were crying as they lit their candles and left red roses in tribute to the fallen leader. Their tears were not only in grief, they showed their understanding that a new era has begun. Political terrorism and violence, many thought, will be part of the reality of this peaceful, safe and open society.
The most important lesson of Palme’s assassination might have been that protecting elected leaders is as important as protecting democracy itself. Yet events showed that this was not a lesson that Swedish society wanted to hear.
One of the speakers at Palme’s funeral was an up-and-coming Social Democrat politician, Anna Lindh.
“A person can be killed, but ideas cannot. Your ideas will live on through us,” she said in her oration.
In a cruel irony, Lindh would also be murdered some seventeen years later in a Stockholm department store, as she walked around entirely unprotected.
While some of Palme’s ideas turned out to have long-standing resonance, there have been few if any Social Democrats in Sweden since who have matched his radicalism and his capacity to generate controversy. Yet, as with many assassinated leaders, his legacy is perhaps unfairly overshadowed by the memory of his violent death.