In the US we are concerned about our government being corrupt. It helps to examine corruption abroad as well, like in Sweden.
Editor’s note: This is the beginning of a series on Sweden, which explores the roots of corruption in Sweden today. It is useful for Americans to consider, especially since we have leaders who occasionally hold up portions of the Swedish form of governance as models for our own nation. We hope that this helps you, our readers, in analyzing programs that we will probably see introduced in the coming months and years – particularly in healthcare and retirement reforms.
The casual observer might have noticed that not all is well in the self-proclaimed humanitarian super-power of Sweden. For starters, our politicians appear to have been taken by surprise by the recent enormous influx of non-European immigrants, and by the ensuing consequences for society. At the time of writing, they are also at a loss as to what to do about the situation. However, a closer look will reveal that the situation with regard to the political class is even worse than it seems, and that a substantial reason for this is inherent to the political system itself.
Together with many other countries, Sweden has proportional representation, where seats in parliament are allocated according to the percentage of the vote each party receives in the general election. This is in contrast to (for example) the US and British systems, where majority voting is practised and where only one individual is elected from each electoral district.
Democracy and Some Electoral History
Is Sweden still a democracy? Democracy means rule by the people. In ancient Athens, all free men took part in the rule of the city in what today is called direct democracy. The Athenians themselves would likely have called a representative democracy an “elective aristocracy”, since the people do not rule directly, but indirectly, through elected representatives.
In a Germanic state, such as ancient Sweden, there used to exist a similar situation as in Greece. All free men, likely about 20 percent of the population, took part in decisions. Women were then not allowed to vote, but they were married to the men who did. To what degree they were therefore represented is a matter of debate. Given the high child mortality, and the ensuing broad-based population pyramid, there may have been about the same number of children below the age of 14-15 as there were adults. Therefore, somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of the population was represented in halfway, direct democracies such as the ancient Nordic ones. In these Germanic societies, there was also the king, theoretically an elected official.
A united Sweden eventually emerged and became ruled by a king and for the most part, taxed by elected representatives, the four Estates. This is an area where Sweden was unique, in that the Estates included the farmers, in addition to the nobility, the clerics and the burghers. Until 1544, the king was officially elected, although the possible list of pretenders was limited, and military power was a common means to decide the outcome. Through the parliamentary reform of 1865, from 1866 Sweden had a Riksdag with two chambers. The right to vote was at the time restricted by a census, and was only given to men.
Apart from within a direct democracy, the populace never actually rules itself; it is debatable whether direct rule is even possible, beyond a trivial small number of citizens. For these reasons, Popper suggested that a better definition of democracy is a state of affairs where the people can get rid of those in power through peaceful means. One then does not always get the representatives one wants, but one can at least change to a different lot. With such a definition, Sweden has, to a degree, been a democracy for a considerable time, possibly for millennia. Finally, one must not forget that in times gone by, the threat of armed rebellion strongly restricted what rulers could and could not do.
One should carefully distinguish between being representative and to represent others. Amongst the Ancient Greeks, when it was impossible for a large gathering of citizens to be involved, and when it was not a question of such a critical role as a general in a war; people, who were to be representative, were designated by drawing lots. In contrast, when one elects a leader or a candidate, he or she instead represents the electors. In such situations, one commonly does not want the person to be representative, but to be among the best suited available to fulfill a particular role. Sweden, for at least a thousand years and perhaps much longer, had up until the election of 1911 as a principle the election of more or less outstanding individuals, chosen to represent the others.
What is commonly called the final breakthrough of democracy changed all this. The party in power, what would later be called The Right (“Högern”), under the leadership of Arvid Lindman, introduced general suffrage for men during the years leading up to 1909. The Liberals, under Karl Staaff, and the Social Democrats, under Hjalmar Branting, wanted the French system with single-person seats, and majority elections in two stages, where a second round is called for if no one reached more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round (Britain instead has first-past-the-post voting, where whoever has the most votes is elected in a single round of voting).
That the Liberals and the Social Democrats advocated this system was not only because they had tradition on their side. There were also self-serving reasons, since as a result they anticipated obtaining more seats in parliament. For the same reason, the Right wanted proportional representation to keep as many of their members of parliament as possible. Unfortunately, as we shall see, proportional representation won the day. What is abundantly clear is that the modern trope that “in Sweden, we vote for ideas, not for people” was invented after the fact. And it has never really been correct either.
Sweden moved to a single-chamber Riksdag in 1971, and until 1976 there were 350 seats in parliament; in 1976, they became 349. Twenty-nine geographical areas allocate 310 of these seats directly, from lists provided by the political parties, but only amongst those parties that receive at least 4 percent of the national vote, or at least 12 percent of the local vote (a special case that, to my knowledge, has never elected anyone to parliament). A further 39 mandates are allocated nationally from these same lists to ensure strict proportionality in the national vote, excluding parties that receive less than 4 percent nationally. Each party prints ballots with a list of 20-30 names in each area, and a voter picks one of these lists and puts it in an envelope. Since 1998 it is possible to put a tick in front of a name to attempt to change the ranking order determined by each party. But in 2014, this only elected 12 people to the Riksdag other than those the parties would have preferred were given higher priority.