An old-fashioned Swedish witch hunt

The hounding of Moderate Party secretary Sofia Arkelsten may not be the best approach to fighting corruption in Swedish politics, writes The Local's David Landes.

An old-fashioned Swedish witch hunt
Sofia Arkelsten at the Centre Party's Allsång med Maud in Gävle on September 1

The Swedish press corps decided to celebrate Halloween early this year by commencing on something of a witch hunt targeting Sofia Arkelsten, the Moderates’ newly installed party secretary.

The first skeleton in Arkelsten’s closet was unearthed on Wednesday when it was revealed that she had accepted a trip to the south of France sponsored by Dutch oil company Shell.

The goblins continued to haunt Arkelsten on Thursday as news emerged of more sponsored trips and that she was given the free use of a fancy BMW for a few days back in 2008. Horrors, indeed!

Arkelsten’s ghoulish week ended with Expressen publishing pictures of her in tears as she discussed the escalating scandal with her colleagues, as well as a haunted housing story by Aftonbladet alleging Arkelsten had bypassed the rental housing queue and secured a first-hand contact for a flat in sought-after Södermalm in Stockholm.

It remains unclear what upsets Swedes more: that Arkelsten acquired the apartment from a landlord known for his dealings in the black market or that she didn’t have to wait in line like everyone else.

While not wanting to belittle the role of journalists in keeping public figures in check and exposing potential conflicts of interest, the ferocity with which the Swedish press pounced on Arkelsten bordered on obsessive.

And it hardly seems fair to single out Arkelsten when Swedish politicians of all stripes and at all levels have accepted similar invitations to participate in sponsored trips and events, sit on the boards of outside organisations, and engage with people who more than likely have an agenda they are trying to push.

Rather than throwing eggs at Arkelsten, Swedes may be better served by spending their Halloween knocking on the doors of politicians and, rather than accepting treats, ask why the Riksdag has no rules governing what sort of sponsored trips MPs are allowed to accept, why the country has no laws regulating the activity of lobbyists, and why political party funding remains secret.

Nevertheless, Arkelsten’s case does merit attention in that it highlights not only the importance of monitoring politicians’ relationships with profit-seeking companies, but also the challenges in drawing an appropriate line between engaging with stakeholders and allowing oneself to become a pawn to their interests.

And while The Local may not share the views of other Swedish media outlets regarding Arkelsten’s actions, readers will continue to see stories about her on the site as long as she remains a topic of debate in Sweden.

After all, part of The Local’s mission is to bring its readers Sweden’s news in English, and we would be remiss to ignore a story that has clearly captivated the Swedish public – despite our reservations about its merits.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Sweden slips in global corruption rankings

Sweden has dropped from third to fourth in an annual ranking comparing the levels of perceived corruption around the world.

Sweden slips in global corruption rankings
How corrupt is Sweden? Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Its Scandinavian neighbour Denmark shared first place with New Zealand in this year's Corruption Perception Index (CPI), released by anti-corruption campaign group Transparency International on Wednesday and ranking how corrupted countries were seen to be in 2016.

Both Denmark and New Zealand were given a score of 90 on the 0 to 100 scale (highly corrupt to very clean), followed closely by Finland and Sweden, which scored 89 and 88 respectively.

While still in the top-five of 176 countries, Sweden found itself pushed down one notch from last year and the group's Sweden office warned that this was no time to be complacent.

“Sweden's good performance in the 2016 index does not mean that we are spared from corruption in the public sector,” Ulla Andrén, chairwoman of Transparency International Sweden, said in a statement.

“Over the past year we have unfortunately seen how core values have wavered considerably. Leading figures have turned out to lack an ethical compass and corrupt behaviour has damaged trust in various public institutions.”

READ ALSO: Why Denmark is world's least corrupt country

Major Swedish institutions were rocked by scandals last year, including claims of cronyism and cover-ups at the state auditor Riksrevisionen and tax agency Skatteverket. Some of the country's largest businesses, such as Telia and Ericsson, have also faced allegations of illicit payouts.

“We believe that everything colloquially referred to as cronyism is corruption,” Lotta Rydström, executive secretary of Transparency International Sweden, told The Local.

“Transparency International's definition of corruption is wider than just bribes: 'Corruption is abuse of entrusted power for personal gain', which includes nepotism, buddy contracts and so on.”

“I would probably also say that several bribe-related incidents in the business world have shown that Sweden is not as spared (from corruption) as many think,” she said.

Rydström warned that the corruption index does not cover local and regional councils, where much of the political decisions are made in Sweden. Municipalities and county councils make up around 70 percent of public administration in the country.

“A high rating does not mean that we can beat our chest and say we are still almost the best student in the classroom. Good can get better and there is plenty to work on. Public procurement, municipal auditing and whistleblower protection are some of the issues we are working on.”

As a whole, Transparency International said that no nation in the world – Sweden included – is doing enough to fight corruption.

“There are no drastic changes in Europe and Central Asia in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, with only a few exceptions. However, this does not mean that the region is immune from corruption. The stagnation does not indicate that the fight against corruption has improved, but quite the opposite,” it wrote in the report.