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Why nobody cares if a Swedish leader is off sick

Maddy Savage · 7 Nov 2014, 15:47

Published: 06 Nov 2014 16:39 GMT+01:00
Updated: 07 Nov 2014 15:47 GMT+01:00

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Love him or loathe him, Jimmie Åkesson is one of Sweden's most charismatic politicians. The public face of Sweden's anti-immigration movement since 2005, the smooth-talking, sharp-suited bespectacled 35-year-old is a substantial figure.
In September his party became the third largest in Sweden after scoring 12.9 percent of the vote in national elections.
But just a month after what was widely seen as the most significant victory of the 2014 election campaign, Åkesson announced he was stepping aside, claiming things didn't "feel right" and saying he wanted to keep a check on his work-life balance.
In a letter published by Swedish newspaper Expressen, he revealed that a doctor had diagnosed him with chronic fatigue and said he had family responsibilities including being a "good Dad" with a strong "physical and emotional presence".
As the first winter snow fell in Stockholm in November, his return date remained foggy.
"The thing with this kind of illness is that you can't really say for sure how long it will take to recover," Henrik Vinge a press spokesperson for the Sweden Democrats told The Local on Wednesday.
"The formal leave is until the end of November but we can't be sure. It could be until next year, could even be longer."

Jimmie Åkesson inside the Swedish parliament. Photo: TT
The news of Jimmie Åkesson's ongoing absence was widely reported in the Swedish media. But there was little debate. Few commentators questioned his decision. Party members remained supportive and said they were happy for Parliamentary Group Leader Mattias Karlsson to remain in charge until Åkesson returned. Not one MP questioned his decision. No-one tried to stage a leadership coup.
As an international journalist used to covering political dramas in London, Brussels or Paris before I moved to Stockholm, I was baffled.
"The reason people have behaved this way is because in Sweden we have a very non-hierarchical society and the value of equality is highly prized," said Ulf Bjereld, Professor in Political Science at the University of Gothenburg and an active Social Democrat, when I quizzed him on the non-reaction.
"A party leader isn't someone sparkling with lights, or up on a pedestal. A party leader is one of us. If we can get sick then so can a party leader. He has the same rights as anyone else," he added.
Dan Katz, a leading psychotherapist at Sweden's Behaviour Therapy Association (BTF) added that politicians' private lives are generally more respected in Sweden than in other European countries.
"Swedes are often considered somewhat more introverted than for example Italians or the French. We often do not know - at least in the cities, the first name of our neighbours or what they work with. It is considered impolite to ask personal questions".
Before I go any further, let me say that I am all for raising awareness of mental health problems. One of the reasons I came to Sweden was to reach a better work-life balance. I left a huge (hierarchical) international media organization in order to do so. I've witnessed friends transform through therapy.
But surely there are questions to be asked if a major political leader is unable to cope with the inevitable strains caused by his party's rising success?
"What I personally think is interesting is that Jimmie Åkesson's party isn't known for being tolerant of people who are different, yet he ends up being burnt out because of his politics," says Li Wolf, another top psychotherapist and clinical social worker at Sweden's Behaviour Therapy Association (BTF).
"It is positive that we have a social climate which allows people to be on sick leave for these kind of conditions. We should note that some journalists might not want to give his party publicity because of what he stands for. But on the other hand it seems they are being forgiving and tolerant - because this could have been just the right opportunity to be critical," she adds.
According to Wolf, the reaction would have been the same whatever party Åkesson belonged to.

Jimmie Åkesson has been in the media spotlight in recent months. Photo: TT
What is key here is that Jimmie Åkesson most likely knew that his decision would be accepted in Sweden. 
Compare that to the constant analysis of President Obama's physique by the US media (is he too thin, too grey, too stressed to be President?). When the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair had minor heart surgery, the British tabloids were packed with questions about whether or not he was still 'up to the job'. France's President Francois Mitterand avoided scrutiny by concealing his prostate cancer throughout the 1980s.
As Nick Laitner, Managing Director of global PR and lobbying firm MHP Communications, and an expert on Europe's political and media scene puts it:
“While mental health issues are quite rightly beginning to gain some prominence in the British political debate, it would still absolutely be seen as taboo for a very senior politician with pretensions to national office to do this sort of thing."
He argues that while many elements of the British media are slightly more understanding of stress and mental health than they traditionally have been, if a UK party leader were to make the same choice as Åkesson, "this story would largely be told as that of a weak or perhaps strange individual who is not fit for the rigours of front line politics".
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But he adds that "most serious politicians in Westminster would yearn for the sort of grown up debate that is afforded their colleagues in Scandinavia".

Mattias Karlsson is temporary leader of the Sweden Democrats. Photo: TT
The key question now is whether or not Jimmie Åkesson's decision will end up having an impact on his career or his party.
"There is never a good time for a party leader to get sick, but I am not sure that this is an especially bad time because it has happened after an election in which the Sweden Democrats have done well," argues Professor Bjereld.
The Sweden Democrats have threatened to reject the coalition government's budget and vote for a rival proposal being put forward by the opposition Alliance parties in Sweden, a move that could - in theory - trigger a fresh election.
"There has been a lot of talk about this but I am on the side of most commentators when I say that I don't think the Sweden Democrats really want to cause a governmental crisis. I don't think they would have done this even if Åkesson was in charge," says Bjereld.
Sweden hasn't experienced a flash election since 1956 and as Bjereld points out, it is unclear how the public would react if one was called.
"The Sweden Democrats are doing well - even without their usual leader. Why would they take that risk?"

For more news from Sweden, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Maddy Savage (maddy.savage@thelocal.com)

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