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OPINION

DEMOCRACY

‘Swedish politics not immune to grassroots movements’

Swedish parties should look at political shakeups abroad and take heed, warn two representatives from high-profile democracy thinktanks on the opening day of parliament.

'Swedish politics not immune to grassroots movements'
Could someone like Donald Trump gain a following in Sweden? Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

This Tuesday, King Carl XVI Gustaf opens Sweden's parliamentary year in the presence of representatives of all main political parties. While Swedish parties will soon continue politics as usual, many of their sister parties across Europe are experiencing existential threats stemming from a range of political insurgents. In just the last 18 months, political movements that defy traditional politics have turned party systems upside down from Germany to France, from Italy to Spain and from the UK to the US. Swedish parties should take heed.

Two weeks ago, France's popular Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron resigned to lead En Marche!, a new political movement that refuses to call itself a party. That same week, the young Alternative für Deutschland defeated the powerful CDU in regional elections. Meanwhile, in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn is tightening his grip on the Labour Party in defiance of the party establishment. So is Donald Trump, who won the Republican presidential candidate against his party's well, mostly with the help of Twitter.

Further south, in Spain, the two upstart political movements Ciudadanos and Podemos which grew out of street protests have ruptured the country's two-party system. And in Italy, the Five Star Movement just won the mayoral elections in Rome and Turin. The blog of its unofficial leader, comedian Beppe Grillo, is one of its main weapons. In the US, Bernie Sanders, while not making the presidential candidate nomination, has defied the traditional way of doing politics in the US, mobilizing grassroots voters both politically and financially.

What defines this motley crew of political movements, running from Europe's political left to the political right? All of them are loosely organized, defy traditional party structures and claim to have direct contact with a disgruntled electorate. They feed on a growing group of angry citizens, who distrust government over incomprehensible policies or high-level corruption. Many stem from protest movements and maintain close contact with those movements after their transition to politics. They infiltrate traditional party systems or existing parties and revolutionize them from within. Their leaders live, talk and often dress differently. And lastly, they rely on social media and other new technologies to connect to citizens in a more direct way.

To say that Swedes are happy with their party system or that Sweden is immune to such movements is naïve. In Sweden, as in Europe, citizens have in recent years moved to a new market space of active citizenship. Citizen discourse increasingly takes place not in party gatherings but in coffee bars, on streets and in social media. Political party relations with citizens have changed from predominantly vertical relations to more horizontal relations that reflect the way people work, interact and live in today's societies. If Swedish parties want to occupy this new market space, they need to innovate rapidly and the success factor has to do with trust. Trust in the parties and in the state.

Swedish voter turnout is admittedly among the highest in Europe. But the same goes for Germany and the UK, both of whom have seen a shakeup of their party systems. Moreover, what defines citizen support to political parties may not be voter turnout. For instance, only five percent of Swedish citizens are members of a political party, which is below the European average, and of those only 1.5 percent are politically active.

Despite a trend towards younger political party leaders (average age is now 42, down from 50 years ago), party membership suffers from 'geritatrization': political party membership is disproportionately represented by older age groups, with half of all party members being over the age of 65; among the plus-65 population, ten percent are members of a political party, while this is the case for only four percent of the under-25s.

Hence, the failure to politically mobilize the citizenry through traditional political parties, sparking political movements elsewhere, also exists here. Couple this with Sweden's high interest in innovation of any sort (a recent poll showed that Sweden has Europe's highest trust in social media's benefits to democracy) and you get fertile ground for the emergence of a political movement.

Established parties are, however, not doomed to extinction: several European parties, from the Conservatives in Norway to the UK's Green Party, have introduced new modes of citizen involvement, public outreach and citizen forums – and have grown substantially as a result. Most parties in France are today organizing open primaries, ahead of the 2017 presidential elections.

There are many ways in which Swedish parties can also strengthen or reconnect to citizens, but three lessons from the continent stand out: with a shrinking political party membership base, Sweden's select group of party members need to accept more influence from non-members when designing policies, recruiting candidates, or nominating leaders in order to have a relationship to their voters and supporters.

Secondly, Swedish parties are latecomers to new technologies. They should embrace technology to allow larger citizen involvement in policy making, internal voting or citizen outreach. And thirdly, parties should be absolutely transparent in their financing, which is an area where Sweden lags behind in Europe, as the Greco commission of the Council of Europe reported in January 2016.

At the opening of the parliamentary year, parties would do well to look around the rest of Europe, and reserve a moment of self-reflection in order to strengthen the trust between citizens and parties.

Written by Sam Van der Staak, senior programme officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and Jens Orback, the Secretary-General of the Olof Palme International Center and former Minister for Democracy, ahead of an Idea panel debate on the topic on Tuesday.

OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
 
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
 
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
 
 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
 
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
 
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
 
Glad Påsk!
 
Midsommar drowning  
 
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
 
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
 
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
 
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.
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