Swedish ballot-casting not secret enough, OSCE report says

Sweden needs to improve the secrecy surrounding how voters cast their ballots, a report from the international observation mission OSCE concluded Thursday, adding also that the country should tighten its rules on campaign financing.

Swedish ballot-casting not secret enough, OSCE report says
Swedish ballots are often placed ‘in plain view’, the OSCE observers wrote. Photo: Hanne Franzén/TT

For the first time, independent experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in September monitored Swedish election procedures. On Thursday, their report was made official, containing several recommendations on how Sweden can improve in order to hold fairer and more transparent elections.

The most crucial issue, they wrote, was the open manner in which polling stations lay out the ballots, leaving it up to the voters themselves to try to hide their political party preferences: “Ballots are placed on a table or a stand, often in plain view of voters and staff present in the polling station at times might diminish the secrecy of vote.”

On Wednesday, Swedish lawmakers passed a law to ensure protection screen are installed around the ballot papers to protect voters’ right to secrecy more, but up until this week, it has been common practice among Swedes to pick up a great selection of ballot papers in order to confuse potential onlookers before heading into the shielded polling booth where they cast their votes.

READ ALSO: Timeline: Everything that’s happened in Swedish politics since the elections

The observers also said that the rules regarding how political parties report their campaign financing aren’t strict enough, leaving big question marks over how the parties spend their money.

“The reports offer only a partial disclosure, as they contain information solely on income,” the report said.”The parties are not obliged to report on their expenses, assets and debts, therefore the possibility for the public scrutiny of political financing is limited.”

The intergovernmental body also recommended that Sweden changes the way ballots are distributed to different polling stations, saying that the way it works now – leaving it up to the political parties to distribute them themselves – is risky, and resulted in people reporting missing ballots on election day.

“All parties […] reported problems with the distribution of ballots, stating that they would prefer that the election administration be responsible for the distribution of all ballots,” the report stated.

Overall, however, the 14-page report stated that Swedish legislation provides a solid basis for”genuine democratic elections” and that the majority of the mission’s observers consider the system”open and transparent”.

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ANALYSIS: Why Sweden’s Greens are happy despite losing big in EU vote

If all you had to go on were pictures from the Green Party's Sunday night event in Stockholm, you'd think they were the victors of the European election rather than one of the parties that lost the most votes.

ANALYSIS: Why Sweden's Greens are happy despite losing big in EU vote
Green party spokesman Per Bolund, top EU candidate Alice Bah Kuhnke, spokeswoman Isabella Lövin and Pär Holmgren, second EU candidate celebrate on Sunday. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
While its sister parties in Germany, France, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Austria, and the UK made historic gains, the Swedish Green Party lost half of its four MEPs after its share of the vote plummeted from 15.2 percent to 11.4 percent.
Although it wasn't alone – Sweden's Liberals and Feminist Initiative both lost more votes than the Greens did, and it did remain the country's fourth biggest party in Europe – the “Greta effect” achieved in many other countries could not be as clearly seen in the home of the Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.
But on Sunday night, the party's charismatic lead candidate Alice Bah Kuhnke was grinning from ear to ear, and the party posted a message on Twitter thanking supporters and boasting of the 11.4 percent. 
Top EU candidate Alice Bah Kuhnke celebrates her election as an MEP. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
What's going on? 
Arguably, it's because the Sweden's Greens are actually a step ahead of their sister parties. The party had its own green wave in the 2014 European elections, when it soared by 4.1 points. 
European Election ANALYSIS: Six key takeaways from Sweden's vote
Months later it entered national government for the first time as the junior partner in coalition with the Social Democrats and the painful concessions it was forced to make over the next four years left it with only 4.41 percent in September's election, just a whisker over the four percent threshold to enter parliament. 
“It's obvious that they are very happy,” Roger Hildingsson, a Lund University researcher specializing in green politics, told The Local. “The rule of thumb is that the Green Party doubles its result in the national elections in the European elections, so this is a lot better than that. They were afraid of a much lower result.” 
The party achieved a lot in power, doubling Sweden's environmental spending, driving through a flight tax, subsidies for electric bikes and low-emission cars, a new climate law, and a proposal that tripled the cost of European emissions allowances.
But it also made painful concessions, breaking a key promise to close down Vattenfall's coal mines in Germany and backing a tightening of Swedish refugee and immigration policy that lost it half of its members. 
Former Green Party spokesperson Åsa Romson nears tears as she announced a tightening of refugee policy. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
The party has also faced other parties competing for the same space, with the Centre Party and Liberal Parties positioning themselves as economically liberal greens, and the Left Party competing on the more radical green turf.  
There was also the breakaway Vändpunkt (Turning Point) party formed by longtime Green Party figure Carl Schlyter after he left the party in protest at the January Agreement struck with the Centre and Liberal parties. 
“As far as I understand from the Green Party they have been nervous as to what extent they will be challenged by Vändpunkt,” Hildingsson said.
In the end Vändpunkt pulled in only a fraction of a percentage, ending up humiliatingly lumped together in the 0.7 percent of “other parties”. 
“I think this will give the party some kind of self-confidence that they are back on track and attractive to voters concerned by climate change. That they might have come out of their crisis.” 
Carl Schlyter at the February press conference announcing the launch of his new party. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT
Hildingsson said that the result could also strengthen the party in negotiations, both within Sweden's ruling coalition and in Europe, where its two mandates are now part of a block with a potential kingmaker role. 
“When the agreement was made in January, the Green Party was definitely the weakest partner, with this result they can maybe argue with more confidence,” he said of Sweden's coalition.  
The European situation very much depended, he said, on negotiations with the Social Democrats or centre-right European People's Party in the European parliament. 
“It could be sufficient for them [the centre parties] to strike an agreement with Alde [the Liberal group], so in that sense they could jump the Greens,” he warned. “But on the other hand I think they are concerned that there is some popular concern about climate change.”
The question, he said, was to how radical a programme of action on climate change the mainstream parties of the centre-left or centre-right might be willing to agree. 
“If this green wave is a result of stark concerns that we need to act now, rapidly, transforming our societies, that speaks in favour of a more radical position,” he said. “On the other hand, the room for pushing very radical positions might be limited, because the green group aren't alone in the middle.”