‘Sweden is ruled by unelected policy plotters’

Sweden has long been seen as the epitome of a healthy democracy. But in this week's debate article, three researchers argue that an increase in unelected behind-the-scenes operators is threatening accountability in the Swedish political sphere.

'Sweden is ruled by unelected policy plotters'
The Swedish government and parliament buildings. Photo: Ola Ericson/

Who has the power over Swedish politics and who decides how to shape tomorrow's politics? The answer to these questions has long been a given, both in the public debate and in the text books used in schools and universities. Namely, our elected politicians, representatives of various social movements as well as big names in industry and large trade unions. Sweden has been considered an open and well-functioning democracy and we have known who these people are and have been able to hold them accountable for their actions and decisions. Citizens interested in influencing political decisions have had good opportunities to get involved in, for example, political parties, various movements or in the extensive spread of other voluntary associations. The political parties in particular have presented themselves as grassroots' and members' organizations.

This rosy picture of Swedish democracy has, however, been increasingly questioned. In particular, political parties and the traditional social movements' have faced criticism for how they operate. The difficulty to engage new members has been highlighted and many opinion polls have indicated weak confidence in the political parties.

In the latest survey of confidence in the central Swedish civic institutions conducted by the SOM Institute at Gothenburg University the political parties and local authority boards ended up at the bottom of the table, far behind institutions that cannot be elected through a vote (and thus not 'voted out' either) such as universities and seats of higher education, courts, police and health care. Trade unions also trailed far behind in this barometer of trust. Naturally, it is fatal for a democracy when confidence in the institutions for which citizens can vote is significantly lower than those for which they cannot vote.

There are many ideas about the causes of this crisis of confidence for Swedish democracy's central institutions. In a recently completed research project at the Institute for Future Studies (Institutet för framtidsstudier) we have chosen to investigate a largely unknown category of political powerbrokers whom we have chosen to label 'the policy professionals'. These are people who are neither elected nor selected by the members of, for example, a large trade union, but are hired to conduct politics. They can be found virtually everywhere in the political system, for example in government and parliament offices, within the political parties, in local authorities, in trade unions and other lobby organizations as well as, not least, at PR firms and so called think tanks. They have a plethora of different titles: common ones are policial expert, press officer, political secretary, head of social policy, speech writer, communications director and so on.

It is true that people of this kind have long existed in our political system, ever since former Prime Minister Olof Palme was hired as secretary to the sitting Prime Minister at the time, Tage Erlander, in 1953. What has happened over the past two decades is that this group has grown to such an extent that one can speak of this as a qualitatively new means of political influence. To quantify the group is not easy, but according to our estimate it today includes at least 2,500 people. For the past ten years, a Swedish Prime Minister has had more political appointees in his government offices than the number of parliament MPs needed to run the country. Our investigation shows that this is a group that exerts a significant but largely invisible influence on Swedish politics. This is by no means a group that only serves its elected officials but they participate directly, and often on their own initiative, in the formulation of policies, proposals and strategies.

The 'policy professionals' laregly consist of young, Stockholm-based and highly educated people and they are generally characterized by a very strong desire for political power. However, they themselves usually don't have any inclination towards standing for elected office – the traditional kind of political influence is seen by them as slow, unglamorous and, interestingly, less effective when it comes to conducting politics than to act as a policy professional. In our material, it is also evident that many policy professionals have a surprisingly negative image of representative democracy and elected politicians. In many cases the policy professionals perceive themselves to have far more power than their elected employers.

The policy professionals nowadays form such a major political category that they have created their own venue (Almedalen in Gotland), a partially internal vocabulary with terms such as 'policy development' and not least extensive dedicated networks which are an important resource in their efforts to exert influence. With a concept drawn from anthropology, one can today view the policy professionals as a new political 'tribe' in the Swedish political landscape with its specific social codes, rituals and characteristics.

What does this development mean for the health of Swedish democracy? One result from our study is the increasing importance of money in Swedish politics. To be able to afford plenty of PR consultants and think tanks is becoming all the more important in this new political landscape. Another problem is that someone as a policy professional could be employed by the government one day, with strong influence over major arms deal, and then the next day be employed by the defence industries directly dependent on these weapons contracts.

Unlike other countries, Sweden lacks a so called grace period that restricts this traffic between political power and economic profit interests. This development also means strong professionalization and centralization of political power within parties and organizations. Members who want to make an impact often encounter a battery of employees with significantly more information and knowledge than they themselves have. In big cities we can observe a very strong increase in the number of employed information officers, while the number of journalists scrutinizing local authorities' power has decreased sharply.

Another effect is that this increases the ambiguity of who actually makes the decisions in important issues. The Swedish constitution, for example, mentions nothing about how to demand accountability from this new and extensive category of political decisionmakers.

Finally, we assert that the use of PR firms and think tanks for what is termed 'policy development' can lead to the politcal parties' own ability to themselves generate political innovation gradually growing numb. To replace active members and elected officials with these hired 'political experts' or PR consultants could in the long term do a grave disservice to Swedish democracy.

This is a translated version of a debate article written by Christina Garsten (social anthropology professor at Stockholm University), Bo Rothstein (political science professor at Gothenburg University) and Stefan Svallfors (sociology professor at Umeå University), and originally published in Dagens Nyheter.

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‘The Sweden Democrats no longer need to worry about how they appear’ 

The Sweden Democrats spent years distancing themselves from their extremist past, but recently the far-right party has edged back closer to the fringes of the nationalist movement, says Expo Foundation researcher Jonathan Leman. 

‘The Sweden Democrats no longer need to worry about how they appear’ 

When the Sweden Democrats entered the Riksdag for the first time in 2010 they were isolated and shunned by all other parties. In 2014 their share of the vote grew and the establishment parties cobbled together the so-called December Agreement to keep the Sweden Democrats at bay. 

By 2018 the sands of Swedish politics had shifted again. Months after the election that September the leader of the Christian Democrats, Ebba Busch, ripped down the cordon sanitaire that had surrounded the Sweden Democrats when she shared a meatball lunch with its leader Jimmie Åkesson. The Moderates, then the biggest party on the right, soon followed suit and the party that had emerged in 1988 from the ashes of the racist Keep Sweden Swedish movement was finally in from the cold. 

This centre-right embrace kickstarted a new approach from a party that for years had publicly washed its hands of the more extreme elements of the broader nationalist movement, says Jonathan Leman, a researcher with the Expo Foundation which monitors and exposes far-right extremism in Sweden. 

“The Sweden Democrats no longer need to be worried about how they appear so that they can be accepted. Because once the door is opened to them by parties who are willing to cooperate with them, their worry about appearing racist or extremist becomes rather a worry of appearing politically correct or not radical enough,” he tells The Local’s Sweden in Focus podcast (out Saturday, March 11th). 

By re-building the bridges it had previously burned with Sweden’s complex and influential network of right-wing alternative media outlets the party could neutralise a potential enemy and re-connect with the grassroots nationalist movement. 

“These alternative outlets are either a friend or a foe. As a friend, they will sort of pave the way for you, they will attack your political opponents. And as a foe, they will give you a headache. So I think it’s a calculation that ‘we can get away with the closer relation with this alternative media environment now.’” 

In 2022 the Sweden Democrats became the biggest party on the right of Swedish politics, with a voter share of 20.5 percent, and Leman says he’s worried that the three governing parties’ reliance on support from the Sweden Democrats means they are reluctant to express criticism when the party oversteps accepted boundaries. Like many other countries, Sweden upholds a principle that politicians should stay at arm’s length from decision-making in the cultural sphere: they help establish the framework but agree to stay out of day-to-day decision making. 

But what happens when a party refuses to accept this principle? And is there cause for concern when, as happened recently, Sweden Democrats at the local level move to block cultural events like drag queen story hours, or a Lucia procession fronted by a student who identified as non-binary?

“I think it’s very worrying. And I think that this sort of relative silence from the other parties in the Tidö cooperation makes it even more worrying,” says Leman. “I think it encourages SD to move forward with this sort of culture war, this sort of war they’re waging on constitutional democracy or liberal democracy.”


Tune in to Sweden in Focus on Saturday to hear more from Jonathan Leman on why the Sweden Democrats espoused the idea of “open Swedishness”, how far its anti-racist zero tolerance policy stretches, whether the party’s links to pro-Kremlin sections of the alternative media sphere represent a security threat for Sweden, and how the party will navigate a balancing act between the centre-right and extreme right as it seeks to further broaden its appeal to voters. 

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