How did the Social Democrats end up in such chaos?

The Social Democrats’ malaise goes far deeper than the expenses scandal engulfing leader Håkan Juholt, political scientist Nicholas Aylott writes, arguing that the party needs to decide its ideological path and to pick its leader accordingly.

How did the Social Democrats end up in such chaos?
Photo: Scanpix (file); Södertörn University

The agony of the Swedish Social Democratic Party just gets worse. Until a year ago, the party had managed with just six leaders since the 1930s; it is soon likely to be looking for its third within a few months.

The latest incumbent, Håkan Juholt, put on a brave performance at Wednesday’s party leader debate in Sweden’s parliament the Riksdag, but he surely cannot recover sufficient authority to retain his job for long.

The immediate cause of Juholt’s predicament might induce déjà vu among British observers.

Late last week, the left-leaning tabloid Aftonbladet revealed that he had over-claimed accommodation expenses to which a member of parliament is entitled – an eerily similar offence to that which snared so many MPs at Westminster two years ago.

Juholt himself confesses to no more than severe carelessness.

But when exactly he became aware of the discrepancy is now – to his party’s excruciating embarrassment – the subject of a preliminary investigation by the Prosecution Authority (Åklagarmyndigheten).

Despite the denials, the issue that all but seals Juholt’s fate, however, is the fact that his expenses are only the latest in a remarkable series of blunders since he emerged from obscurity to become party leader only last spring.

His tendency to make hasty, ill-considered policy soon became all too apparent when the party’s line on Sweden’s contribution to the Western intervention in Libya over the summer changed frequently and wildly.

More recently divisions within the party became all too apparent when Juholt’s draft shadow budget caused uproar in the party’s parliamentary group when it turned out to have little in common with the leader’s earlier left-wing signals.

Further compounding the sense of disarray, party statements on the ultra-sensitive topic of immigration were spectacularly bungled and a television debate between party leaders was boycotted on flimsy grounds.

Media commentators speculate that leading Social Democrats may have leaked the expenses stories, calculating that short-term calamity might be worth enduring if it ends Juholt’s disastrously misjudged leadership.

The question for a political scientist has to be: how did it come to this? How did what is still Sweden’s biggest party, which nearly monopolised government for so long, end up in such chaos?

European social democracy faces all sorts of long-term challenges. But I think that the Swedish party’s travails have a lot to do with its own institutions, and particularly how it chooses it leaders.

Swedish parties, like many Swedish organisations, are wary of internal competition for leadership positions. When a vacancy arises, the task of filling it is thus usually delegated to a selection committee (valberedning), which, having conferred and consulted, will frequently recommend only a single candidate for broader confirmation.

This can be a perfectly effective method of choosing leaders. But the Social Democrats have persisted with it, and in an extreme form, in entirely unsuitable circumstances.

This is a party that desperately needs an open, frank debate about its direction. Should it shift towards the centre and chase middle-class voters? Or should it rediscover what some would see as its ideological core and move left instead?

Either option is quite conceivable and legitimate. The party just needs to decide which to take.

Choosing a leader would, in most other Western parties, offer an excellent opportunity to do just this. Party members would simply opt for a candidate that championed one path or the other.

In Sweden, however, aspiring Social Democratic leaders are, by tradition, not supposed to pitch for the top job. Instead, they should wait for the party, in the form of the selection committee, to call.

This process means that since the Social Democrats lost the 2006 election, party members have never had the chance express their views in a leadership ballot – or perhaps even to decide what their views really are.

Equally bad, the leader who they eventually got in March was probably quite unprepared.

Rather than bridging the Social Democrats’ ideological factions, the selection committee seemed paralysed by them, with each of the main leadership contenders was consistently blocked by the party’s left or its right.

Juholt’s emergence as a compromise figure, at almost the last minute, probably left him as amazed as anyone else. His party should not have been surprised, then, if he didn’t have a thought-through vision of what he would do as leader, nor the managerial skill to implement such a vision. Until then, he had never really needed either.

The old selection method worked fine when the party was in government. What the party wanted when it changed leader was clear enough. A manifesto had previously been agreed by the party, endorsed by the electorate and formed the basis of a government programme. The new leader, always an experienced cabinet minister, was already signed up to it.

In opposition, however, the mandate for a new party leader is much less obvious. The previous election manifesto is, in practice, void after its rejection by voters. A different type of choice by the party is necessary. The Social Democrats’ failure to change their way of choosing helps to explain why the last two selections, both made in opposition, have turned out so badly.

In fact, there is a simple way forward for the party.

Without abandoning the selection committee model entirely, two other Swedish parties have recently chosen new leaders in a more open way, with different candidates competing openly and offering distinct pledges on where they wished to take their parties.

Doing something similar would force the Social Democrats to decide what they want and, by definition, produce a leader in tune with that decision. Will this 122-year-old party be bold enough to break with its past in this way?

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Sweden’s five biggest news stories of 2011

As 2011 draws to a close, The Local looks back at some of the stories that dominated headlines in Sweden in the past year.

Sweden's five biggest news stories of 2011
Maja Suslin; Björn Larsson Rosvall/Scanpix (File)

Last week, we published a list of The Local’s most shared stories on Facebook from the past year.

This week, we highlight (in no particular order) a few of the stories that, in one way or another, helped define Sweden’s news agenda in 2011:

Social Democrats in chaos

After what was termed a “disastrous” result in the September 2010 elections, Sweden’s Social Democrats, the long dominant force in Swedish politics, struggled with how to deal with an unprecedented second parliamentary term in opposition.

Related articles

–Understanding the Social Democrats’ leadership crisis

–‘Wild card’ Juholt faces challenge of mending a party in crisis

–How did the Social Democrats end up in such chaos?

The party spend the early months of the year hunkered down in internal “crisis meetings” in a desperate bid to find a leader to replace Mona Sahlin, settling on dark horse moustachioed MP Håkan Juholt whose folksy charm was supposed to give the party a new start.

But just a few months into his tenure as party leader, Juholt found himself embroiled in an housing reimbursement scandal that nearly toppled him.

While he survived, Juholt and the Social Democrats head into 2012 mired in a swamp of low poll numbers, sagging confidence, and a dearth of credible answers on exactly how they plan to beat the now mighty Moderate Party in the next election.

Victoria pregnant

After an initial whirlwind of excitement and positive publicity, the much-anticipated pregnancy of Crown Princess Victoria, announced in mid-August, hasn’t dominated the headlines, per se.

Related articles

–Victoria pregnant

–‘Let’s hope everything goes well’: Victoria

–Royals rejoice over pregnant princess

But the fact that a new heir to the throne – and Sweden’s future head of state – is on the way, is certainly a major event for Sweden and the monarchy

While members of the republican movement in Sweden may have moaned at the news, the country’s media outlets are aflutter with excitement about the additional demand a royal birth is expected to create.

And after a tumultuous year for the Swedish royal family, news of Victoria’s pregnancy will no doubt be considered the highlight of 2011.

An economy as “strong as Pippi Longstocking”

While much of Europe and the rest of the world limped along in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the ever-expanding European debt crisis, Sweden came into 2011 with record-high economic growth.

Related articles

–Sweden ‘strong like Pippi Longstocking’: OECD

–Ministers tout ‘Swedish model’ to solve European debt crisis

–Borg grabs top spot in Financial Times’ ranking

The success of the ‘Swedish model’ prompted the head of the OECD to proclaim that Sweden’s economy was as “strong as Pippi Longstocking” and contributed to finance minister Anders Borg being named the best finance minister in Europe by the Financial Times.

There has even been talk of the Swedish krona replacing the Swiss franc as a safe haven currency in a debt-riddled Europe.

While growth has slowed somewhat recently, and forecasts for 2012 have been adjusted downward, Sweden can look back at 2011 as a year when its economy more or less withstood the storm of uncertainty and worry that kept the rest of Europe fretting.

One long, sad Saab story

Hardly a week has passed this year without at least one news story about Saab’s ongoing struggles. Thus, Saab’s December 19th bankruptcy filing was hardly a surprise for anyone who had tried to follow troubled Swedish automaker’s numerous ups and downs in 2011.

Related articles

–Saab production halted ‘until further notice’

–Sweden’s Saab – back to the future?

–Saab hits bankruptcy 60 years after a flying start

Ever since the Saab factory in Trollhättan first halted production last spring, it seemed more like a question of when, rather than if, the loss-making Saab would be forced into bankruptcy.

While Saab’s wheeling and dealing CEO, Victor Muller, traveled the globe in search of new investors courting dodgy Russian businessman before settling on eager Chinese carmakers, his frantic efforts were, in the end, not enough to save Saab from falling deeper into the financial abyss.

Ever the optimist, Muller still holds out hope that Saab will rise again. Who knows? Guess we’ll have to wait and see what the new year brings.

Royal scandal

Despite the excitement about Victoria’s pregnancy, 2011 has been, in the words of the Crown Princess, “very rough” for the Swedish Royal Family.

Related articles

–Scandal-hit King denies all allegations

–From wedding bliss to royal crisis: the state of Sweden’s monarchy

–‘Queen Silvia shouldn’t be blamed for her father’s Nazi past’

Her father, King Carl XVI Gustaf, has been haunted by scandal stemming from a tell-all book published in late 2010.

Despite his attempts to put a lid on the scandal, the book’s sordid details about the King’s alleged marital infidelity and visits to strip clubs, as well as reports about his friend’s attempts to buy the silence of mobster Marko Markovic, have caused the King’s approval ratings to plummet and prompted many to question to monarchy altogether.

Meanwhile, Queen Silvia has struggled to deal with the fallout from reports that her late father, Walter Sommerlath, was a Nazi sympathizer.

And while any given year can bring bad publicity for any royal family, the degree to which the Swedish Royal Family has been on the defensive in 2011 is certainly out of the ordinary – at least for Sweden.

No doubt the King and the entire Royal Court is looking forward to March 2012, when the expected royal birth could help turn the family’s publicity fortunes around.