Sweden’s youth politics comes of age

Sweden's politicians are worried.

With the country’s closest general election in more than a decade looming, party officials fear that those who don’t bother to vote could have a more significant effect than those who do. And that means that Sweden’s political future is, more than ever before, in the hands of the fickle youth.

Turnout has been consistently dipping in Sweden from a 91% peak in the mid-1970s to 80% at the last election in 2002. Democracy, some politicians lead us to believe, is suffering.

Compare and contrast with the UK, where the 2005 election saw a turnout of 61%. There is a stagnant apathy fuelled in part by a common perception that the unrepresentative First-Past-The-Post voting system renders many votes worthless.

The situation in the other global bastion of democracy, the United States, is even worse: the 2004 Bush-Kerry election saw the highest turnout in forty years – just 60.7%. One explanation offered in the US, UK and in Sweden is that the significant parties are singing from too similar a song sheet.

But there is a substantial difference between last year’s British general election, and this year’s Swedish poll – a difference that goes some way to explaining why Swedish democracy is in a robust condition.

The active involvement and interest of young Swedes is palpable. Political ignorance is the primary cause of apathy, but the inherent nature of politics within everyday life is acknowledged here, and broader political awareness among teenagers and 20-somethings is evident.

Take Frank Nilsson, for example. He’s the press secretary for Centre Party leader Maud Olofsson. And he is just 22 years old. Miriam Nordfors is a campaign manager for the Folkpartiet. She is also 22 and spends term-time studying at Warwick University in England.

Nordfors believes Sweden offers more opportunities for youngsters to get involved in activism and party politics.

“Sweden is less formal, so it’s easy to make a difference while you are young,” she says.

“In England you need to have experience, contacts, or parents who might set you up with internships.”

Across the other side of the political spectrum, there is agreement from parliamentary candidate Monica Amante, a member of the Feminist Initiative (FI).

“There is a political atmosphere here that makes it easier for people to express their political opinions,” says the 27-year-old.

She corroborates Nordfors’ claim that there are more chances for young people to get active in Sweden; before joining the newly-formed feminist party, Amante worked extensively for anti-racism and LGBT awareness groups.

“Our party is rooted in activism. Those who want to vote for us want to go further with their political activism and ambitions,” she explains.

But, aside from encouraging first-time voters to back their side, parties’ youth sections play a part in engaging young people and motivating them to learn about the issues. The youth wing of the Left Party is particularly active in schools, and spokesman Jonas Lindberg believes his party is emphasising the relevance of politics to youngsters’ lives.

“We’ve been visiting many schools and encouraging them to teach girls self-defence classes. We are also working to provide young people with more things to do after school, rather than hanging out at McDonald’s.”

Lindberg knows that a lot of his party’s electoral support will come from the 18 – 30 demographic, but he is equally aware that the FI could hijack this crucial youth support. Lindberg says the Left Party’s views on feminism are near-identical, and that splitting the vote of those who care about gender equality could damage the entire feminist movement.

His concern is understandable – younger voters focus on sociological rather than economical issues, with gender equality, immigration and integration, the Middle Eastern crises and even internet law attracting the most interest.

Jonas Holm, 21, will be voting in his first parliamentary election, and is yet to decide who he will support.

“I think I’ll decide on the day itself,” he says. “Today I’m leaning towards the FI, but Miljöpartiet and Vänsterpartiet also appeal. I’m not so much attracted to the leftist ideology as I am appalled by the right-wing one.”

Holm describes himself as having a keen interest in politics, and an instinctive opposition to the politics of “free-market commercialism”. He is one of many under-30s enthusiastic about the FI cause.

Other youngsters are turning their attentions to the newest party of them all, the Pirate Party. For a country with one of the highest internet download rates in the world, it’s not surprising that a movement which is anti-copyright, pro-privacy and numbering some 8000 members is causing waves. Not bad given that they only formed on January 1st this year.

FI and the Pirate Party demonstrate the richness and vitality of Swedish democracy, and although unlikely to top the 4 percent required for a seat in parliament, they are keenly supported by younger Swedes.

Add to this the fact that there are seven main parties of influence, and the symptoms suggest a far healthier body-politic than in Britain or America. The proportional representation system also gives voters a sense that they can make a difference.

“Politics is unavoidable,” says Holm. “As I’ve become older I’ve noticed it more and more – it has an unavoidable grip on your life. This election is so close that we first-time voters know our vote is really going to count.”

British politicians have debated the merits of introducing SMS and online voting in a bid to counter youth apathy. Sweden prefers a simpler method: making party politics both relevant and, more importantly, accessible to its newest voters. The alarm bells need not sound just yet – Swedish democracy can still teach the British and American models a thing or two.

Eddie de Oliveira