The Almedalen political week, held each year in the small city of Visby in Gotland, is a unique phenomenon.
It all began when Olof Palme and Krister Wickman, who were both considered as future leaders of the Social Democrat (Socialdemokraterna, S) party at the time, held an improvised meeting in Visby in 1968. Palme, who would become party leader the following year, famously spoke from the back of a lorry close to Kruttornet, the largest of the towers in the medieval wall surrounding Visby.
Soon it became a tradition for politicians to gather at the nearby park called Almedalen each summer to hold speeches. After all, many politicians owned or rented vacation homes in Gotland. Journalists were more than pleased to work in this beautiful setting. Joining together in beautiful Almedalen was the perfect end to the working year before the vacations started.
In 1991 all political parties in Sweden were, for the first time, in place at Almedalen. Three years later a seminar was held by two interest organizations representing the Swedish business community. Soon a range of special interest groups, such as labour unions, various associations, and companies realized that Almedalen was a perfect opportunity to influence policies. After all, when else were politicians from all major parties gathered in a small relaxing setting and willing to listen to you if you bought them a drink?
In 2001, 51 events were organized in Almedalen. In the election year 2006 the figure grew to 463. During the next election of 2010 there were 1,396 events organized. And this election year the estimated figure has mushroomed to 3,308.
Almedalen has become so crowded that there is barely any room left in Visby. Even small apartments in the city centre can be rented out for 10,000 kronor ($1,494) or more for the week. Many of the journalists, PR-people, politicians, interest organization representatives and intellectuals who attend have to find housing in the outskirts of Visby.
Almedalen is admired in neighbouring countries as an open democratic arena. Denmark and Norway have recently created copies of their own. Finland and the Baltic countries have also shown interest.
One can of course also look at it from another angle. It is, after all, a week during which special interest groups each spend hundreds of thousands of kronor, if not millions, to influence politics. The political class enjoys free food, drinks and parties, and is encouraged to form special relations with the labour unions, companies or organizations providing these goods.
It is understandable that so many special interest groups want to influence politics. The public sector in Sweden spends some 1.8 trillion kronor annually. Even small changes in taxation, spending and regulation can have significant effects for various groups and businesses. Somewhat puzzling, government agencies also spend tens of millions of tax money at Almedalen – to influence the central government to increase their respective budgets. The European Union generously spends the funding it gets from member states, to promote itself to the political elites in Sweden. Do we as a society gain anything from this race to buy political favour?
Of course, spending money to influence politics is anything but exclusively for Sweden. In all parts of the democratic world various organizations commit themselves to changing public policies. In the US, for example, massive sums are spent on lobbying politicians, mainly behind the public veil. Almedalen has the advantage of being an open venue, scrutinized in detail by the host of journalists who gather there.
The question is when the already overcrowded week will peak. Will Almedalen become even larger next year? Will it expand to 4,000 events next time an election is held? Already the cost of living and for organizing an event has skyrocketed. The vast majority of seminars held and reports released get very little if any attention, since the competition for medial and political attention is so steep. Most organizations would get more attention if they held their events any other part of the year than Almedalen. But the lure of Gotland's early summer, and the possibility to have a drink with famous politicians and journalists, has so far been greater than such considerations.
Most people who regularly visit Almedalen complain that it is too crowded. Yet, few are willing to stay home.
Nima Sanandaji is a regular op-ed contributor to The Local. His latest book is called “Active ageing – The path to more healthy years” (“Aktivt åldrande – Vägen till fler friska år”).