It is said that you see symbolism in what you want to see. Talk a walk along Strömgatan and you will see two bridges leading into Gamla Stan. The first is a pedestrian walkway – Riksbron – that goes through opens up to courtyard of the national parliament; the second is a much grander bridge – Norrbro that leads right up to the royal palace. These two bridges are a study in contrasts, and symbolism.
Norrbro is wide enough welcoming to vehicles, and carriages (horses, for the daily change of guard parade), allowing a pedestrian walkway on both sides of the bridge leading up to the royal palace.
Riksbron on the other hand, is completely pedestrianised and amazingly, to me at least, allows people to pass through the courtyard of parliament house. In fact, the pedestrian walk way was opened the day after the Stockholm attack of 2017. Parliament entry in many other places is a lot stricter and higher secured.
While Norrbro is the street for pageantry and parades, it is Riksbrom where and the unspectacular walkway where the work of government actually takes place in this constitutional monarchy, where the head of state is the king but the actual power rests in the hands of the Prime Minister. The Riksdag is where the prime minister reports to the public through their representatives who put him in that position, and the parliament house is open to the general public whenever it is in session.
Those bridges are, to me, symbolic of monarchies eventually giving way to a version of democracy.
Well the country is still technically under a monarch, whose one political act is to open parliament… Swedes are still technically subjects of the King.
It had been almost two years since I got to visiting the Riksdag, with the Swedish general election coming soon, it was time to pay this place a visit.
Now Sweden may be considered a constitutional monarchy today but it doesn’t mean that the forms of parliamentary meeting of the people is new to this society. Way before the three Nordic nations even formed, the Vikings had a public assembly called the Thing. The Thing was where disputes were solved, political decisions were made and religious rites were performed. In a way it was a court, parliament and church a rolled into one. As Sweden took on Christianity, the assembly of peoples was eventually replaced with the court of a king. The part that remains of the Swedish Riksdag is, obviously, merely the part that makes laws, but not the part of religion or executing laws.
Quite interestingly, the thinnest booklet (representing a ministry) of the Swedish budget in recent years used to always be that of the Defence ministry, and the thickest was the social welfare sector. The length of books being consumerate with the amount of money spent on that area. The thickness of the defence section of the budget has increased in the last few years.
In its early days, the Swedish parliament had 4 chambers, each representing the four classes of society – laborers, traders, religious and nobles each with equal power. Once we put on the cap of equal rights, the multi-chamber system immediately becomes a bit of an oddball since it grants different groups much larger powers than the rest, but that is all in the past now – at least for Sweden. Sweden is currently what is called a unicameral parliament meaning that there is only one chamber of parliament, one collective body that makes all deliberations. It did not move from four houses to one however, there was an intermediate bicameral stage where around two-thirds of the parliamentarians were elected by universal sufferage and another third appointed by county and city councillors. This stage lasted a whole century from 1886 to 1973 when Sweden’s parliament took on the unicameral form it has now. The building that the parliament meets in now was once the headquarters of the national bank but was re-positioned to house a large 349 member unicameral chamber.
So how does Swedish democracy work?
Sweden uses a system called proportional representation. Meaning that the number of seats a party eventually has in the parliament is directly proportional to the percentage of votes it obtained. This usually means that there will always have to be some sort of coalition government, since a single government will almost never be able to obtain enough votes on their own to become the ruling party. Meaning governance tends to be based on consensus and is more slow moving. It’s benefits are that the voices of as many people in the system are heard as possible.
Proportional representation is diametrically opposite to the British Westminster style first-past-the-post system where an individual wins the seat as long as they can win the majority in a constituency. This usually leads to governments with the numbers to rule , since you don’t need many votes to win, if you one more vote than your opponent you win but also leads to highly odd situations where the ruling party has an oversized control of the parliament of the country.
A third system of election is called the alternative vote, but since its not too relevant to today’s discussion, I’ll leave a video below by CGPGrey to explain what that is.
What was rather fascinating too about the nature of the Swedish Riksdag is that it forces a dialectic rather than a debate. In the British parliament for example, the governing party and the opposition party sit on opposite sides of the aisle, creating a uncooperative, adversarial environment.
The lack of interaction, in the US senate, congress and among supporters too, has been pinpointed as part of the reason for the lack of ability of the politicians to talk things through.
In the riksdag however the members sit in a semi-circle almost like that would in a Thing and do not sit by party but by county. This forces political opponents to sit with each other and therefore have to interact. It’s not that the different parties don’t have spaces to meet, the old chambers are now used for party meetings by the various parties when they have to decide on a party position. These MPs are expected to be in Stockholm 4 day of the week and in their home territories 3 days of the week when parliament is in session. So travelling up and down the country every week is common for them. A sociologist tracked the number of hours the various MPs spent on their official political work and calculated the amount to be 66 hours per week. Considering that less than 1% of Swedish people work more than 50 hours a week, you have to give these guys quite some credit. That’s a lot of time commitment – although to be fair, they asked for the job.
There aren’t also a lot of perks that come with the job, except the honour of being given the chance to represent the people as this Brazilian documentary shows (the current Queen, Sylvia was born a Brazilian).
So who are the players in the Swedish political scene right now?
There are a total of 8 parties in the parliament right now, with a minority government led by the centre left Social Democratic Party in coalition with the Greens (they receive support during budget and confidence motions from the far left Left Party, former the Communist Party). Their main opposition is the Alliance led by the centre right Moderate Party, Centre Party, Liberals and the Christian Democrats. Another opposition group that is not part of the main alliance is what has been described as the ‘far-right’ Sweden Democrats.
The most successful (measured in terms of electoral victories) political party in post war Sweden is the Social Democrats whose leaders have served as Prime Ministers for 58 out of the last 83 years including an uninterrupted period from 1936 to 1976). In broad sweeping terms, the Social Democrats support tends to come from rural dwellers, blue colour workers and unions, whereas the Moderate party tends to draw its support from the middle class, PMET and business owners. In recent years, the Sweden Democrats has slowly clawed more and more electoral support to its side, often at the direct expense of the centre-right party. To this Swedish politics neophyte, the situation is not to dissimilar to how UKIP in the UK recieves support mostly from those who used to vote for the Conservatives.
The electoral map makes the base of support for the different parties clear.
The results of the last election in 2014, left showing the Riksdag election and the right showing the municipal elections. The colours show the party that won the majority vote in the district. Red: Social Democrats; Blue: Moderates; Yellow: Sweden Democrats (Source)
For the curious, the three large areas in blue are around Malmo, Gothenburg and Stockholm – the three large cities in the country. Among the two municipalities that voted the majority for the Sweden Democrats in yellow include the Sjöbo which had issues with refugees going back to 1988. Who is chosen matters, because municipal taxes are collected based on the programmes of the party invovled, your tax contribution in Sweden is also affected by the party you vote for – in general municipal taxes are slightly higher in Social Democrat run municipalities and slightly lower in Moderate Party run municipalities.
It may look as if the country is mainly run by the Social Democrats, but don’t let the sea of red fool you, the small geographic size of the areas won mostly by Moderates is made up for by the fact that those areas comprise a population of close to 5.3 million people in a country of 10 million.
Interestingly, for one of the most progressive and feminist countries in the world Sweden has actually not had a female Prime Minister, a situation that does not seem likely to change regardless of the outcome of the upcoming elections in September – since all the current leaders of the major parties are men. Until 2017, the leader of the Moderate party was a woman, Anna Kinberg Batra who led the party for three years only to resign due to ineffectual leadership, un-supportive party machinery, fatally flawed public strategy and just sheer bad luck (and here).
The upcoming election like many in Europe will say a lot of debate on the topic of immigration, exacerbated by the refugee crisis.
The rapid rise of the Sweden Democrats is itself a statement (credit should also be attributed to their charismatic leader, for some reason Europe’s far-right party leaders motstly have quite powerful personal charisma). The new sociopolitical reality seems to have dawned on the main political parties, who as recently as earlier this year, were still inclined to freeze out the rhetoric from the Sweden Democrats. Take a look at this sampling of videos from The Guardian (UK), RT (Russia) as well a series of speeches by party leaders in the Riksdag.
Take the sampling as you will, with a pinch of salt, for example in the second RT video note that the sources used to describe how bad the situation is are from right-wing and extreme right-wing sources. These are views that may be uncomfortable, but are nonetheless the perceived reality of a part of society.
There are obviously other topics, including the uproar of spiralling public cost to build the new Karolinska hospital. But based on what the politicians are saying, there is clearly one topic on their minds now.
Opinion polling data seems to suggest possibly a change of government could be on the cards. We’re a couple of months away from finding out.
ON THE MAP