As has often been privately noted, subtle logistical engineering and social pressure conspire to keep Swedish elections from being fully free and fair. However, for the first time since I’ve been following the news from Scandinavia, this issue is now being discussed in public.
This discussion started in Denmark, not Sweden. Our Danish correspondent TB has this to say about the op-ed he translated for us:
This op-ed was published a few days ago in Politiken (The New York Times of Denmark, of all places). It is about the design of the Swedish election system and how it actually excludes some voters from voting for the party they prefer (e.g. Sverigedemokraterna). The issue was originally brought up by Danish People’s Party MEP Morten Messerschmidt not that long ago when he suggested that observers should be sent to Sweden to evaluate whether the Swedish elections actually live up to international standards.
Of course, the intellectual elite in Sweden ridiculed him for what he said, hoping the issue would thereby go away. But the tactic seems to have failed, since two professors, one from Sweden and one from Denmark, have now picked up on the subject. And they have a point when they say that there exist fundamental and indeed problematic areas in the so-called Swedish democracy.
But judge for yourself. I must say that I had a tendency to smile during last third of the op-ed. The authors are not without a sense of humor.
Below is TB’s translation of the op-ed from Politiken:
How democratic is Sweden?
Swedish elections do not live up to international standards.
By Jørgen Elklit and Birgitta Widstrand
Jørgen Elklit: Dr. Poli. Sci., Professor in political science at Aarhus University, Denmark.
Birgitta Widstrand: PhD, Researcher at Uppsala University and member of the Swedish Riksdag in Sweden 1991-2002.
Just before Christmas Morten Messerschmidt, who is a member of the European Parliament for the Danish People’s Party, wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Parliament, Mr. Buzek. It was not a traditional Christmas letter that Morten Messerschmidt mailed, however. Apparently Mr. Messerschmidt expressed his concerns about the way Sweden arranges its elections, therefore suggesting that the chairman might consider offering Sweden some help by sending observers for the coming up Riksdag election in September.
Apparently no other Danish media besides Politiken reported about the letter from Messerschmidt. One reason for the apparent lack of interest could be that many were of the notion that Messerschmidt had a hidden agenda, namely to help the Sweden Democrats get into the Riksdag during the upcoming elections. At the moment the party is only represented in some local municipalities, but recent opinion polls shows that the Sweden Democrats would enter the Riksdag if elections were to be held now. Many in Sweden were of the opinion that the suggestion from Messerschmidt was embarrassing, and it was ignored throughout the Swedish media.
Anyway, a discussion about Swedish elections made us — who have both been engaged for many years in election observation and advisory activities in matters of elections and democratic issues in new democracies — start reflecting about what the result might be if one did as Messerschmidt had suggested.
The surprising conclusion was that there actually exist significant problems, at least if one has an agenda of securing genuine democratic elections, that is, elections which in political and journalistic terminology are often referred to as being ‘free and fair’.
We wrote our notions about the flaws in the Swedish elections seen from a democratic viewpoint in a little op-ed, which we, in our utter naïveté, thought we could publish in one of the four biggest Swedish newspapers. Despite the subject’s value for the assessment of the legitimacy of the Swedish elections — which is also questioned by other sides in Sweden and not only by Messerschmidt — we have now been rejected everywhere. ‘We have no room’ was the consistent answer from all of them. Well, Dagens Nyheter was honest enough to admit that this was only one reason among others; perhaps the article was also a little too controversial?
It is obvious that many of the factors involved when assessing elections in new democracies (or whatever they may be) are not problematic when evaluating elections in Sweden. That’s why we have concentrated on the actual voting process, i.e. what happens when the voter comes to the location where he is going to deliver his vote. A lot of what has happened before that (registration of the voters, the political fight before the election, information to the voters etc.) we accept as unproblematic without any further investigation, and there is not much doubt that foreign observers would do the same.
In a democratic system it has to be possible at each election location to vote for the parties and candidates which are represented in the constituency. Both when it is only a single person that has to be elected (as in England), as well as when several individuals have to be elected in each constituency (as in Denmark and Sweden).
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For the public authority, who are responsible for the administrative implementation of the election, one of the most fundamental tasks is to secure that no voter is excluded from voting as he or she wishes because of a lack of necessary ballots or because ballots are not available at the voting location. If the ballots are not present when the voter needs them, one has practically excluded the voter from voting as he or she likes. And any kind of exclusion of voters counts as a negative for the quality of a democratic election.
Preparation, printing, and distribution of ballots is a task that normally raises significant logistical challenges, not least in poor third-world countries with a weak infrastructure. It is the responsibility of the election administrator to ensure that the ballots are printed and distributed so that they are available in the right quantity, at the right place, at the right time. It is the prerequisite for the voters to be able to find the names of the parties (and maybe candidates) who have managed an election campaign in their area and for whom they have prepared to choose among and give their vote.
But that is not how it works in Sweden. Here they do not have a common ballot for all parties who are represented in a given constituency or a given municipality. Here they have separate ballots for each party. At the location you find three kinds of ballots which match one’s political preferences for each of the three simultaneous elections for the Riksdag, Landstinget (regional level) and the municipality respectively. The ballots are placed in envelopes and then submitted.
New parties trying to get into the Riksdag (and parties which received less than 1% of the votes in one of the previous two elections) have to pay for the printing of their ballots themselves. At the two other levels, the right for free printing of ballots is obtained if the party was elected at the last election. For each of the three different elections there exist three kinds of ballots: one in which the available candidates from the party have been listed by their names etc., one where this is not the case, and where you can write the name yourself, and one which is completely blank.
Parties that received more than 1 percent of the votes at the latest election can expect (are entitled to) that the election managers will make ballots without the names of the candidates available at the venue of the election. On the other side, all parties are themselves responsible for making the far more important ballots, those with the names of the candidates, available in all the different localities of the election. Obviously this constitutes a huge effort which can be difficult to manage for small parties — and the consequence can be that the voters who arrive at the voting venue to cast their vote will not be able to find ballots of the party for which they would like to vote. In principle they could use one of the blanks, but not many do that.
Some parties come forward with two lists in the same constituency, one normally with the national-level candidates, and the other with local candidates. Since many small parties are often represented, there can easily be 30 different lists available in an election for a Riksdag constituency. And since there are often many small parties represented at the two other levels, and several kinds of ballots, more than 100 different ballots to choose from may easily be found at the respective voting location.
The ballots of the established parties are presented by the election managers, and those with the names of the candidates by the parties themselves, so the picture is somewhat blurred. Add to that the fact that the ballots with the names of the candidates are also often handed out outside the election room by candidates and activists who have been called in by the different parties for that exact purpose.
This whole system of how the voters are given the relevant ballots in the first place deviates significantly from the process we see other places where the voter is given a single common list — or a packet with ballots. A task carried out by the administrators of the election who are — in principle — neutral workers. In Sweden, anyone can actually distribute ballots outside an election venue.
The first fundamental problem about Swedish elections is that new and smaller parties especially are faced with three different problems. 1) They have not printed enough ballots, perhaps because of financial problems, 2) they have not been able to distribute their ballots to all election venues where their candidates are represented, and 3) they do not have enough activists to draw on so that they can hand out ballots outside all election rooms in the constituencies where their candidates are listed.
At the Riksdag election in 2006 no less than 571 million ballots [there are 9.5 million inhabitants in Sweden, equivalent of almost 60 printed ballots per citizen in total. — translator] were printed, and no more than 20 million. of them were actually used. The waste is therefore — to say the least — extremely huge, even when taking into consideration that the ballots are smaller and printed on thinner paper than we are used to in this country [Denmark].
The procedure surrounding the accessibility and handout/delivery of ballots can only be characterized as a systematic (maybe even deliberate?) obstruction of the possibility for potential voters for small and new parties to actually gain access to vote for their preferred party.
This is the kind of issue that all observer organisations (like the EOM from the EU and OSCE/ODIHR) would immediately notice. If the administrative authority, who are responsible for the implementation of an election, cannot secure that all voters can vote for their preferred party without having to go through some kind of trouble, then something is wrong and the election can under no circumstances be characterized as fair!
Of course the financial situation of the parties also plays a role. During the early summer election to the EU Parliament, one of the new parties, the Feminist Initiative [Isn’t that just so typically Swedish? — translator], did not have a chance to pay for the printing of the necessary ballots themselves. They were saved by Björn from ABBA who was able to contribute a million kroner, thereby making the printing possible.
The other fundamental problem with the implementation of elections in Sweden is the tradition of having a representative of the respective parties present at the election venue who hands out ballots to the voters who want to receive them. Here one should take into consideration that the Swedish constituencies are, on average, significantly smaller than their Danish equivalents. Therefore it happens on many occasions — especially outside the big cities, but not only there — that voters and representatives of the parties know each other personally, making it difficult to avoid the social pressure which occurs when it is a familiar person who offers the ballot.
Of course one can accept several ballots, thereby attempting to camouflage which party one will finally vote for, but exactly the fact that you are picking up several ballots signals to the representative of the party that you are probably not going to vote for her party — and that can also be socially incriminating.
It is probably this part of the election which most foreigners find difficult to accept, because they see it as a violation of the principle of secret voting, and as a subtle way of exercising pressure all the way down to the actual voting act itself. This fact makes it difficult to accept the election as being completely fair in relation to the voters.
But no matter what the principle might be of having representatives present, and no matter what the voters should perhaps do, it is a fact that some voters do not take all the ballots. Therefore one can easily figure out who the voter does not vote for. That’s why voters who pick up ballots from new — and possibly controversial — parties will be under suspicion from their fellow citizens of having sympathies for one of those, and that will be stigmatizing per se. And equivalently, if they have to find them on the bookcase that holds ballots inside the election room, because the party does not have representatives outside. Actually, it can be rather complicated to find the right ballot.
According to our notion, however, it is just as much the system of printing and distributing of ballots which is — in principal — inappropriate, because it results in a systematic bias unfavorable to new and smaller parties.
The conclusion is that the problems related to the parties and the production and lack of securing a homogeneous/uniform access to ballots over all of Sweden means that Swedish elections can not be given the label ‘Free and Fair’ — they might be free, but they are not fair. And they have to be that if a political system is to be characterized as democratic.
The solution — in our view — can only be to let Valmyndigheten and Länsstyrelsen [the election authorities in Sweden — translator] share full the responsibility of designing a common ballot which is identical for all parties in each constituency. A parallel solution should be implemented at the two lower political and administrative levels.
If that happens, it becomes irrelevant how the ballot is handed out to the voter, because the voter no longer has to think about which ballots he will accept or not accept — everybody in the constituency is handed the same ballot. That means of course that the ballot will be rather big, but so what? In other countries — such as, for example, Denmark, Bosnia Herzegovina, and the Democratic Republic of Congo — the voters are fully capable of handling big ballots.
The arguments about it being difficult to work with big ballots and many names should not decide whether Sweden should be counted as a country that implements its political elections in a way that fully lives up to international standards, should it?
It is urgent to get rid of these two fundamental problems, but with good will it should be possible to do so before the next election to the Riksdag. It would be rather embarrassing if Swedish elections cannot be unconditionally labelled as ‘Free and Fair’, resulting in Messerschmidt’s suggestion of election observers being a reality at the election in September.
Apart from that, it is rather disturbing to realize that apparently nobody in Sweden seems interested in participating in a discussion about how to implement elections back home in Sweden while at the same time being so busy having a say about the way things ought to be arranged and designed in the new democracies to which they are sending observers.
It would actually make sense to use the lessons learned from the election observers in other countries to perform a service-check back home in Sweden — especially when there are at least a few areas of obvious interest.