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Almedalen: a bonfire of Swedish vanity

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Almedalen: a bonfire of Swedish vanity
13:45 CEST+02:00
As Almedalen, the Swedish political pow-wow held annually on the Baltic Island of Gotland, gets into full swing, correspondent David Lindén uses his first dispatch to explain what it is and how it came to be.

This week, most everyone who is anyone in Swedish politics will be spending some time in Visby, the capital of Gotland, Sweden's outpost in the Baltic Sea.

As a result, throngs of Swedish journalists will be making the trip as well, either by boat or by plane.

Indeed, this quaint medieval town is positively overrun with fast-talking schmoozers, earnest public servants, back-slapping lobbyists and sycophantic hordes from the Swedish media.

Surveying the scene, one is hard pressed to believe that it all began with simple speech scribbled on the back of grocery bill.

The speech was short and the speaker delivered it standing on the back of a lorry truck.

Although the speaker was used to giving speeches off the cuff, he had scribbled some notes on the back of a bill from the local Konsum grocery store.

The reason he had chosen to speak in Visby was that his family had started to rent a cottage on the nearby island of Fårö during the summer holidays.

One of his neighbours was the famous film director Ingmar Bergman.

The speaker was future Social Democrat Prime Minister Olof Palme. And the speech spawned what has grown into one of the most important annual political gatherings in Sweden.

In 1968 Palme gave a speech in Visby next to the medieval city wall's Kruttorn ('Gunpowder Tower'), situated in a former port that is now a valley called Almedalen ('Elm Valley').

In the years that followed, making a pilgramage to Visby in the first week of July became a habit for every Swedish politician, as common as attending the opening of parliament in September.

Today Almedalen has become a tradition that few politicians in Sweden can afford to miss, attracting nearly everyone that participates in Swedish political debate.

There may be several reasons for going to Almedalen, but most people are there to impress and to influence – two things for which the generally consensus-driven and quiet Swedes aren't especially known.

To paraphrase the American author Tom Wolfe, Almedalen is something of a week-long bonfire of Swedish political vanity consisting of around one thousand seminars of all shades and sizes.

It would take a person a lifetime to attend them all.

Since Palme's famous 1968 speech, Almedalen has grown into a week of pure Swedish politics.

During the week, each political party with representation in the Riksdag is given one day to promote its own views.

The party leader gives a speech and the party then often arranges a series of related seminars promoting their views on what they consider to be the party's central issues.

The so-called “talking point” of the day is supposed to be a speech normally held in the afternoon. And as most journalists arrive on Monday and only remain through the end of the week, it is considered bad luck to talk on the two Sundays which bookend the event.

As it happens, a lottery decides which day each party can call its own, and this year the Sweden Democrats were stuck with the opening Sunday, while the smallest party in the government the Christian Democrats, are set to close out the week with a speech held on the closing Sunday, July 8th.

While some have suggested the lottery may have been rigged against the Sweden Democrats, who barnstormed the Swedish political establishment in 2010 on an anti-immigration platform that gave parliamentary representation for the first time, such conspiracy theories hold no weight.

After all, the Social Democrats, Sweden's ultimate "establishment" party, have been given unlucky spots in the past, with sitting prime ministers being relegated to second-rate spots despite the party leading being in government.

Over the years Almedalen has also been the scene of some spectacular political manifestations.

It was here ahead of the 1991 elections that the populist party New Democracy (Ny Demokrati) illustrated the Swedish tax burden by creating a massive pile of plastic boxes one normally uses to store bottles.

And in 2010 Gudrun Schyman who was then spokesperson for Feminist Initiative (Feministiskt Initiativ), literally burned 100,000 kronor ($15,000) in cash by setting it on fire to illustrate wage differences between in salaries earned by men and women.

While the stunt made a huge splash in the media, she also came in for harsh criticism for setting the cash alight.

This year, pundits expect the centre-right government to use Almedalen to fight back after months of wallowing in the polls.

In addition, Sweden's centre-left political opposition are expected to use the week to attempt to unite among themselves.

Of course, many are also waiting to see what sort of surprises or scandals may be in store at this year's Almeldalen.

Some are looking to the smaller parties in the Alliance government – the Centre Party, the Liberals (Folkpartiet), and the Christian Democrats – to try to grab attention with some policy pronouncement that contradicts the current government Moderate-led minority government.

Many are also looking to the Green Party to flex its muscle as a party that can negotiate and cooperate with both the party's on the right and on the left.

While the party recently renewed its pledge to cooperate with the Alliance government on immigration policies, Social Democrat party leader Stefan Löfven knows that right now his party has no hope of coming back to power without the support of the Greens.

Some say that Fredrik Reinfeldt thinks his future as prime minister hinges on the Greens, so this year's Almedalen might see some attempts to lure the Green into a deeper cooperation.

Of course, these are just few of many predictions being floated among pundits and analysts.

At the end of the day, however, people come to Almedalen to gossip, make connections, and get enlightened at one of the myriad of scheduled seminars.

Be sure to check back during the week for more reports from inside Almedalen.

Of course, future dispatches may depend on the internet at the press centre in Visby functioning normally – something which was decidedly not the case on Sunday afternoon, leaving some journalists scrambling for alternatives.

Turns out the unsecure network was working, but the password protected wireless connection meant for journalists was inaccessible.

Who knows, maybe it was due to some WikiLeaks-Assange related conspiracy?!?

Probably not, but one thing is for certain, one should always expect the unexpected at Almedalen.

David Lindén is a PhD student in history at King's College London who is serving as the acting political editor for Länstidningen in Södertälje for the summer 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @davidlinden1.

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