Is Sweden Becoming a Corrupt, Juvenile Cooptocracy?

Notes: This is the English version of my previous post. For the definition of Cooptocracy, see [1].

Even 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[2].

How bad is it? The Swedish Riksdag has 349 members. When early in 2012, Håkan Juholt was removed as the leader of the then opposition Social Democrats, the party had 111 additional members of parliament. Not one of them was deemed fit to become the new party leader. Instead, Stefan Löfven was chosen, a union boss who did not have a seat. The situation of an extreme dearth of political talent is similar for all of the other seven parties in the Riksdag.

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, France 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 does not rule directly, but indirectly, through elected representatives. It wasn’t actually until the founding of the United States that some forms of representative government came to be considered to be democratic[3].

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[4]. Women were then not allowed to vote, but they were mostly 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. The age of maturity was 14 amongst the Franks and it was 15 in Sweden. Therefore, somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of the population had some political influence in halfway, direct democracies such as the ancient Nordic ones. In these Germanic societies, there was also the king, theoretically an elected official.

Torgny Lagman

Torgny the Lawspeaker at the thing of Uppsala, Sweden, in 1018. (Christian Krogh)[5]. According to Snorri Sturluson, at the thing he is supposed to have upbraided the king Olof Skötkonung. A largely fictitious but illustrative example of direct democracy.

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 rules itself; it is debatable whether direct rule is even possible, beyond a trivial small number of citizens. For these reasons, Popper[6] 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[7]. In contrast, when one elects a leader or a member of parliament, 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 fulfil 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-passed-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 were reduced to 349. 29 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 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, again 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. In 2014, this only elected 12 people to the Riksdag other than those the parties would have preferred were given higher priority[8].

The passing of time, Swedish culture and proportional representation

Cultures are long-lived and also invisible affairs. For at least a millennium (likely for much longer), and until about 1850, the vast majority of Swedes lived clustered in small farming villages where everyone knew everyone else, and where everyone also knew what everyone else was doing. At the same time, the farmers were to a large degree self-owning and the villages were largely independent political entities. In such an environment, on the one hand, the farmers took decisions collectively; but on the other hand, and partly as a consequence, social conformity was ruthlessly imposed on anyone standing out from the crowd.

As a result, Swedes are known for their unusually strong “royal Swedish envy[9]”, as well as for their often-desperate attempts to reach a consensus. Before the introduction of proportional representation, any aspiring politician had to overcome such mental hiccups. They had to be public speakers and they also had to demonstrate that they, personally, had achieved something in life, so that the electorate might consider them trusted representatives. One might say that they had to demonstrate that they were not representative, but that they stood out from the crowd. In Sweden, we have also had a tendency to appreciate our “chieftains”. He or she who “is just like us”, and who tries to stand out from the crowd, is often ruthlessly put down. But if someone appears to be exceptional, Swedes have no problem accepting them as potential leaders.

When proportional representation was introduced, instead of voting for individuals, Swedes were faced with only five sets of pre-packaged ideas to vote for, one for each of the then five parties in the Riksdag. The logic of this process leads to that within each party, for years on end, all members had to show a united front to the outside world. Conflicts of ideas and interests were handled as internal matters. But the Swedish political parties were nevertheless popular mass movements that depended on their members. Recruiting new members was essential for their existence, as was vigorous internal debate, and political and social activities for the tens or hundreds of thousands of members of each party.

For over 50 years, the consequences of proportional representation gradually changed the political culture of Sweden. To outsiders, each party was more or less represented by a single person, the party leader, heading a party that for the most part showed unfailing unity. Gradually, the Swedish national character also took its due, so that few openly criticised their party, or even openly competed for elected positions within the party. This is close to the opposite of the behaviour necessary within a system with majority elections for individual seats.

Sweden gets legalised political corruption

In Ancient Greece and Rome, it was considered such an honour to represent the city or the fatherland that it was done without financial compensation. For the same reason, the members of the upper chamber of the Swedish Riksdag were for a long time not remunerated.

However, many considered it wrong that only “the rich” would be able to represent the people. But as the parties, except for the communists, had over a hundred thousand paying members each, and large resources, in particular due to voluntary donations, this could hardly have been an insurmountable problem.

An alternative solution, which this author sometimes fantasises about, is the one that applied up until the dual-chamber Riksdag was voted through in 1865. Before then, parliament only convened every three or five years, giving the members of parliament ample opportunity to pursue a profession and pay themselves for much of their political activities. However, in Sweden all parliamentarians eventually obtained a substantial salary to complement the honour of representing the nation.

Our representatives rule over us. And they sit with ladles in their hands around troughs filled with the taxpayers’ money. Beginning after the war, one by one a number of newspapers closed down. The political parties therefore began worrying about the “diversity” of the access to information, that is, that their own party might not be represented by a newspaper in all, or almost all localities. This worry was the most acute amongst the Social Democrats. At the same time, the “Folkpartiet” (social liberal), and the Center party (formerly the Farmers’ party) had problems with the financing of their party activities.

Therefore, in 1965, these three parties together voted through a proposal that provided both public financial aid to the political parties, and financial support to newspapers. As a condition for receiving money, a limit of at least two percent in the national elections to the second chamber was included. Below that, no financial support was paid out. This way, parties outside of the Riksdag, such as MBS and the Christian Democrats, would be unlikely to receive any funds. When Sweden moved to a single-chamber parliament in 1971, the limit necessary was raised to 2.5 percent of the national vote. From 1969, the municipalities were also allowed to distribute financial aid to political parties.

I do not at all claim that politicians in Sweden personally are corrupt; only that they take part in a deeply corrupt system. An aspiring politician has no choice but to become part of this system. Those in power explicitly take money from the taxpayer to give to themselves so that they thereby can promote themselves and explain how important it is that the voters continue to elect them. Even though most politicians are probably able to convince themselves that this system, as they say, “safeguards democracy”, it is nevertheless a case of legalised theft.

At the same time, the newspapers receive financial support, and thus, journalists are – to a degree – bought by those in power. To make matters worse, since the 1920s, Sweden has supposedly “independent” state radio and later also state television. These are, for obvious reasons, completely dependent on government, both with regard to funding and to oversight. Luckily, today there is the internet. But it is still illegal to start a nationwide private radio station.

Sweden becomes a juvenile cooptocracy

Today, Sweden has about ten million inhabitants. The public financial aid handed out to the political parties by the central government amounts to about 466 million kronor[10] ($54 million). This money is given to the political parties centrally, and is in practice at the disposal of the respective party leaders. The money from the counties amounted to 336 million kronor in 2007 ($39 million), and that of the municipalities to 450-500 million kronor ($52 to $58 million)[11]. The youth organisations of the parties receive a further close to $2 million[12]. 84 percent of the expenses of the municipal party organisations are covered by this support. At the county level, they finance 87 percent of the expenses. Thus, all in all, each year our rulers effectively steal 1,250-1,300 million kronor ($145 – $151 million), from us, their subjects.

An honest alternative could be that one million loyal party members each pay a yearly 1,250 kronor membership fee. But as it is, membership fees constitute only between 0 and 3.3 percent of the income of the various political parties[13], and the number of party members has fallen dramatically. Between 1962 and 2014/2015 the total membership of the parties shrunk by 80 percent[14], from 1.346 million to 274,000, all while the population increased from about 7.5 million to 10 million[15]. Another option for financing party activities are voluntary contributions. In 1949, between half and 90 percent of the funding of the various parties consisted of donations[16]. Today, that figure is only between 0 and 4.3 percent.

The result of the culture that proportional representation brought, combined with the Swedish national character on the one hand, and the fact that each political party today is largely financially independent of public opinion and of their members on the other, is the juvenile cooptocracy we see today. The end result of over 50 years of such a system is the appallingly low intellectual and personal qualities amongst the politicians that we are faced with today.

Only juveniles need apply

In 2014, the political youth organisations had 29,000 members (if “Young Pirate” are excluded), spread over what are today the eight parties that are represented in the Riksdag[17]. These members probably constitute about five percent of the relevant age cohorts, depending on for how many years on average people stay members. But if we assume that only one in ten reaches a position of influence, this means that they constitute only about half a percent of the relevant age cohorts, or about 2,900 people. Even this low number appears to be too large for the discussion that follows.

Regardless, the numbers are likely to shrink. Soon the youth organisation will hardly need to have any members at all, apart from a more or less designated set of political broilers. In some municipalities today, grants are paid out to the youth organisation based on how many mandates the mother parties have on the municipal council[18]. As is the case for the national elections, the parties receive the same proportion of representatives on the council as the proportion of votes obtained in the municipal elections. In theory, therefore, such a youth organisation hardly needs any members at all.

It is from this highly restricted and peculiarly chosen collection of individuals that future party leaders, ministers, junior ministers, and other leading representatives of the parties are then co-opted by the parties. You join the youth organisation of a party in your early teens, you are active for some years, maybe for a bit more than a decade. If you have behaved well, if you have toed the party line, if you have been loyal to the party in all your dealings with the outside world, and if you have not been the looser in an internal power struggle, you might one day become an influential politician on the national scene.

Others need not bother, apart from instances such as the one related above, when, due to a lack of suitable candidates in the Riksdag, a new party leader is chosen from outside of parliament, and for the same reasons, sometimes also originate from outside of the clique of former teenage politicians. Sometimes instead, the party leader is chosen from such former teenage politicians, who, for reasons to be discussed shortly, have decided not to sit in parliament.

It does happen that some well-known individuals are elected to the Riksdag as part of an effort to attract goodwill. Included on the lists of candidates are also some who are representative, but who commonly are people who few voters would select as their representatives. Only very rarely do members of either category of these outsiders gain any real power or influence.

The party leader or leadership controls virtually all of the resources of their party, including such things as committee assignments in parliament. Those who go against the party line lose their assignments. They commonly also lose the possibility of re-election to the Riksdag. If some plan not to vote as instructed by the party leadership, first pressure is brought on them in private. If this does not suffice, the whole parliamentary group may be assembled for an hours long bullying session to bring the lost sheep into line. As a result, backbench revolts within parties are commonly limited to at most a few people, every one or two years.

The title of a book on the matter may be translated as “The Button Pusher Brigade” (“Knapptryckarkompaniet[19]”), since most of what is required of the vast majority of parliamentarians is to simply push the button they have been instructed to push at each vote. For this reason, many of the most ambitious young politicians instead choose to work directly for the party leadership, without being elected to parliament.

As citizens of Sweden today, we may choose from eight pre-packaged political alternatives, consisting of people who often have never worked a day in their lives, only ever “worked” politically, on the dime of the taxpayer, possibly from the first moment they joined the youth organisation of a party in their early teens. These politicians have virtually no outside work experience, no outside life-achievements, no outside leadership experiences, and in general very little and very peculiar knowledge of the workings of the world outside of politics.

At the same time, as they have an almost complete lock on the political system, they are the only ones to possess political experience; they know how to present political façades around what is today some very anaemic content. Politics, like all professions, is a craft that requires experience, and as few others can gain it, starting a new party with some prospect of electoral success is all the more difficult.

The Swedish cooptocracy resembles the “democratic centralism” of the former Leninist Eastern bloc. In that bloc, there was only one party to vote for; in Sweden, there are eight. But these parties form a cartel[20]. They share a common interest in seeing to that the current system of financing continues and that no other parties manage to reach the Riksdag.

The system is not completely static. For many decades, there were only five parties in the Riksdag. Through incredible tenacity, support from independent Churches and the charisma of the party leader, Alf Svensson, KDS (now KD, the Christian Democrats) managed to enter the Riksdag. The Green party has the support of about 40 percent of newspaper journalists and just over half of the journalists of state radio and television[21]. The Sweden Democrats managed to enter the Riksdag when the gap between the official rhetoric regarding immigration, and the reality of it became too large for many to ignore.

Thus, by Popper’s definition, Sweden is still to a degree a democracy, but the selection of political parties and of politicians is severely restricted. We can rarely vote for someone who has the prospect of becoming influential unless this person joined a party in his or her early teens. And if a Swede at age 25, 40 or 60 decides to embrace the ambition of becoming a politician, it is as a rule already far too late.

What should be done?

The question is whether anything can be done. The quality of the political class has become so abysmally low that many despair at the thought of voting for any party. Such despair will spread, in part because it is unlikely that the process outlined above has completely run its course; therefore, the quality will likely continue to fall even further. It is said that if something cannot go on forever, it won’t, so maybe there is a way out. The present essay is my own modest attempt at a contribution to finding some kind of solution.

Not all aspects of the Swedish situation are unique. Both theoreticians and practitioners have struggled for a couple of centuries with the question of how to avoid that representative government becomes a form of party government where the incumbent political parties have a lock on the system[22]. But the Swedish system, that combines proportional representation with government funding of the parties, has created a situation far worse than what is commonly seen. It is a situation where not only the existing parties more or less remain the same, but where they also, to a higher degree than is commonly the case, have an almost complete control over who is accepted as a member with any real prospect of gaining power.

To address these problems, those who today hold power would need to remove much of the foundation they base it on. Very few of the politicians currently elected to the Riksdag could expect to be re-elected if they had to fight for individual seats. They commonly lack charisma, they are not decent public speakers, and they lack compelling life stories and accomplishments to attract voters. Some would survive of course, due to their talent and passion for politics. But they would have to express these traits somewhat differently, and most would probably have to wait until they become quite a bit older before they can aspire to elected office.

Although reform might be impossible, something along the following lines is roughly what ought to be done.

  • Abolish all public contributions to political parties. Abolishing the salaries for elected politicians is likely a dream too far.
  • Put no limits on private contributions. Money will allow a politician to gain exposure, but, no matter how counterintuitive it may sound, research from the US demonstrates that the amounts spent then hardly matter at all in deciding who gets elected[23].
  • Introduce majority voting for individual seats. Either first-passed-the-post as in Britain, or in two rounds as in France. This should be the sole way to gain a seat in parliament. Thus, there should exist no additional seats attributed through some form of proportional representation.
  • And, a bit outside of this, limit the number of parliamentarians to at most 149 in total, between one or two chambers. Dunbar’s number[24], 150, is the largest number of people an individual can keep tabs on. And as voters, we should be able to keep tabs on our politicians. A country with only 10 million inhabitants certainly does not need 349 parliamentarians.

To make Sweden more democratic, one could also imagine adding the possibility of referendums by popular initiative, as in Switzerland and in many areas of the US. But I would argue that the most important step is to implement Popper’s definition of democracy, the possibility to remove those who rule us by peaceful means. Referendums might later become an added bonus.

None of these measures will suddenly turn Swedish politicians into unselfish men and women, imbued with knowledge, wisdom and leadership skills. None of them will guarantee that the best possible decisions are taken, something that is anyhow impossible to determine. But with their warts and all, the politicians we would have would at least be far better than today’s selection, and if we still do not like them, they would be far easier to swap out.

[1] In a cooptocracy, existing members of a political body select, i.e., co-opt those new members who replace departing members.

[2] For the general political history of Sweden, please see “Sverige efter 1900. En modern politisk historia” (1981 and several later editions) by Bengt Owe Birgersson, Stig Hadenius, Björn Molin and Hans Wieslander.

[3] See Bernard Manin’s The Principles of Representative Government.

[4] See for example Michel Rouche’ Clovis (in French).

[5] https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torgny_lagman#/media/File:Olav_den_helliges_saga_CK5.jpg

[6] In “The Open Society and its Enemies”. Others may well have come up with the same idea long before Popper.

[7] David Van Reybrouk argues for a return to such a system in his book “Against Elections: The Case for Democracy”.

[8] http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=3993&artikel=5973694

[9] Schoeck, Envy – A Theory of Social Behaviour. As Schoeck discusses, envy exists in all cultures, but to a highly varying degree.

[10] http://www.riksdagen.se/sv/sa-funkar-riksdagen/arbetet-i-riksdagen/sa-arbetar-partierna/#partistd

[11] http://web.archive.org/web/20090204173037/http://norran.se/nyheter/norrochvasterbotten/article240326.ece

[12] http://www.dagensopinion.se/ungdomsf%C3%B6rbunden-f%C3%A5r-16-miljoner-bidrag-fr%C3%A5n-ungdomsstyrelsen

[13] Oscar Hjertqvist, Det politiska bidragsberoendet – Finansieringen av Sveriges politiska partier, Timbro (2013), p. 4.

[14] https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riksdagspartiernas_medlemsutveckling

[15] https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sveriges_historiska_befolkning

[16] Oscar Hjertqvist, Det politiska bidragsberoendet – Finansieringen av Sveriges politiska partier, Timbro (2013), p. 4.

[17] http://www.dagensopinion.se/ungdomsf%C3%B6rbunden-f%C3%A5r-16-miljoner-bidrag-fr%C3%A5n-ungdomsstyrelsen

[18] http://www.orebro.se/369.html

[19] http://www.atlantisbok.se/7683.Bok-Knapptryckarkompaniet

[20] Political cartels are also common in the rest of Europe. For a discussion, please see Klaus Detterbeck, “Cartel Parties in Western Europe?”, Party Politics, vol. 11, no. 2, 2005 (173-191), https://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/undergraduate/module-outlines/ss/political-parties/PolP/DetterbeckPartyPols05.pdf

[21] http://www.jmg.gu.se/digitalAssets/1369/1369226_journalist-2011-journalistboken-kap-13.pdf

[22] See Bernard Manin’s The Principles of Representative Government.

[23] Levitt and Dubner, Freakonomics (2006). A recent, rather spectacular example is the 2016 Republican primary of Iowa where Jeb Bush spent $5,200 per vote received, compared to $300 for Donald Trump, and $600 for Marco Rubio. In total, Trump received 45,400 votes, Rubio 43,100 votes, and Jeb Bush 5,200 votes, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/02/02/jeb-bush-has-spent-more-than-5000-per-vote-so-far/?utm_term=.48245b9aaff3

[24] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Many-Friends-Does-Person-Need/dp/0571253431/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1448518222&sr=8-2&keywords=robin+dunbar

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