King Carl XVI Gustaf is turning 60 years old, and Stockholm will be celebrating this weekend in royal fashion. Few are worrying about a poor turnout for a king who has successfully maintained overwhelming support for Sweden’s monarchy.
Though the royal court is trying to give the festivities an educational angle, with the king holding a workshop for youth leaders on Friday, the real party will take place on Sunday. Crowds are expected to gather to greet glamorous international guests arriving for a magnificent banquet and royal entertainment.
The celebrations will begin, soberly enough, with a church service, followed by the Changing of the Guards ceremony and a musical celebration at the royal chapel. The Royal Family will then make its way in horse-drawn carriages to a lunch thrown by the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, at the City Hall.
The evening’s events will include a star-studded concert in the Hall of State, followed by a gala dinner at the White Sea Hall. Among the guests will be one of the most impressive line-ups of foreign heads of state seen in Stockholm for many years, including Queen Margarethe of Denmark, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, King Harald of Norway, King Albert of Belgium and King Juan Carlos of Spain, with the only notable royal absence being any member of the Brtish royal family.
They will be joined by members of parliament, government officials and representatives of the media, industry and the arts. SVT will broadcast live coverage for those Swedes not fortunate enough to have received personal invitations.
The man being feted has lived his life in the public eye. He became heir to the throne in 1947, at the age of only nine months, when his father, Prince Gustaf Adolf, was killed in a plane crash.
A specially designed educational programme, including military service and university studies, prepared him for his future role as head of state. He also gained experience in various Swedish missions overseas. In 1973, at the age of 27, he became king on the death of his grandfather, and adopted his famous motto “For Sweden in Keeping with the Times”.
Three years later, he married Silvia Sommerlath, an interpreter with a German-Brazilian background, whom he had met at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The couple have three children, Crown Princess Victoria, Prince Carl Philip and Princess Madeleine, and live in Drottningholm Palace on the outskirts of Stockholm.
The king is best known, at least overseas, for his role in the annual presentation of the Nobel Prizes. Although he is Sweden’s head of state, none of his many other duties involve actual political power. The Swedish constitution clearly states that, “All public power in Sweden emanates from the people” and places political power in the hands of the Riksdag and the government.
The king holds the symbolic role of chairman of the Advisory Council on Foreign Affairs, and the highest military rank. He also presides at special cabinet meetings, opens the Riksdag session every September, receives heads of state, undertakes state visits abroad and receives letters of accreditation from foreign envoys. He tours the country regularly, and is honorary chairman of the World Scout Foundation and Protector of the Royal Academies.
In a recent interview with daily paper Dagens Nyheter the king defended the role of the monarchy in a modern democracy.
“Democracy and monarchy strengthen each other, the monarchy being a strong non-political institution that represents history and tradition,” the monarch said, adding that one of his most important roles is “to support the people, including those from other cultures”.
He says it is also his duty to help society at times of national crises like the murders of Olof Palme and Anna Lindh and the sinking of the ferry Estonia. The most recent example, of course, was his comforting and unifying role following the tsunami in South East Asia which claimed hundreds of Swedish lives.
But the king doesn’t devote all his time to high affairs of state and noble deeds, at least not according to the tabloid press and common gossip. He loves fast cars and driving, and also has something of a reputation as a womanizer.
Carl Gustaf has also generated political controversy at times during his 23-year reign: he praised the openness of Brunei, an absolute monarchy with a poor human rights record, and objected to the revised Act of Succession which gave equal rights to both male and female heirs to the throne to name two examples.
Putting his character aside, some wonder why the King should enjoy immunity under penal law, and why Swedish taxpayers should cough up almost 100 million kronor a year for the royal family’s household and expenses. And republicans say the very idea of a hereditary monarchy is based on wealth and privilege, and is an anachronistic ghost from the past.
“We like democracy” says Henrik Arnstad, a journalist and active member of Sweden’s republican movement to The Local,
“The people should be in power and elect suitable and competent people to positions of power. Until Sweden elects its head of state democratically, it will not be a true democracy”.
Still, the royal family consistently enjoys 65 to 80% popular support, much more than any political party. There is a large gulf between politicians’ views of the monarchy, with many of them opposed to it, and the public’s overwhelming support.
“Popularity isn’t everything”, says Arnstad, “Stalin and Hitler were very popular in Russia and Germany, in fact most dictators are, but we still prefer to spend our time and money on a real democratic system”. Swedes, he claims, take the monarchy for granted and haven’t really thought about it properly yet.
“There are very few hard-line monarchists and we will easily win a referendum proposing a republic, if there ever is one”.
So far though, there is almost no public debate on the issue – there is always something more important on the agenda. Historian Dick Harrison writes that this monarchy, despite being non-political, is the most powerful in Swedish history.
“The king really lives up to the phrase, ‘for Sweden’, and that’s why he has 80% approval ratings”. In a rating-crazed society obsessed with celebrity, fame and glory, royalty is the real deal. The Bernadotte family understands this and has an excellent PR operation.
It also seems to understand that by being an impartial, non-political representative of the nation, it can enjoy national support. Many Swedes, like citizens of many other European countries, take comfort in seeing the Crown as a unifying national symbol in a continent where the old nation states are gradually losing power to Brussels. If all Europe eventually has one currency and one constitution, they feel, at least the royal family will remain a source of national pride.
Understanding the power of impartiality, members of the royal family don’t vote even though they are entitled to, and they pay taxes like everyone else. The king, unlike many of his European counterparts, doesn’t formally appoint the Cabinet or form coalitions, and he has no power of veto over acts of Parliament. While these may sound like disadvantages for a monarch, they have their up-sides: having no apparent political power means having no significant political enemies.
And with so much popular support, it is indeed politically risky to oppose the monarchy. Swedish politicians tread very cautiously when approaching the issue. On the right, the Liberal Party is the traditional opposition to the Crown, and the Moderates have some ideological opposition to it, but they both support the status quo. as do the other right wing parties.
On the left, the Social Democrats are officially opposed to the monarchy but since many of their voters and members are monarchists, they have never really dared to act on it. Nor have other leftists, including the former communist Left Party.
It seems, therefore, that Sweden prefers to restrain criticism of one of its less democratic institutions in order to maintain the famous Swedish consensus. This weekend, both politicians and the general public seem to be willing to allow their king a proper party, as he enters his seventh decade with the throne as secure as ever.
Front page photo: Richard Ryan; Copyright: Stockholm Visitors Board; Source: imagebank.sweden.se