OPINION: To protect Sweden’s democracy, trust is not enough

With only two majority votes in parliament needed to change the constitution, Sweden's democratic system, while robust, is also vulnerable, warns Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary General for International IDEA.

OPINION: To protect Sweden’s democracy, trust is not enough
Kevin Casas-Zamora is Secretary-General of International IDEA. Photo: International IDEA

Sweden is one of the few countries whose name evokes a set of values with significance to the rest of the world. The country stands as a proxy for a combination of egalitarianism, commitment to international peace, and respect for democracy and the rule of law. The fate of those values in Sweden matters well beyond its borders. 

Sweden’s commitment to democracy is the result of over 100 years of daily practice of pluralism, tolerance, compromise, inclusion, and vigilance. The results are in plain sight – the country’s democratic performance remains outstanding. When it comes to electoral integrity, the 2019-2021 Report of the Electoral Integrity Project ranks Sweden 2nd in the world. If we focus on the effectiveness of parliament, a key measure of the vitality of checks and balances, the country is first in the world, according to International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy Indices. In a world where, as per IDEA’s figures, average electoral turnout has dropped more than 10 percentage points since the early-1990s, Sweden’s turnout at the last election (87%) was one of the world’s highest and on a par, remarkably, with the country’s participation rates in the 1970s, despite voting not being compulsory. The 2022 World Press Freedom Index has Sweden in the 3rd place globally. Swedish women occupy 55 percent of senior management positions in government, the second highest among OECD countries, and 47% of seats in parliament, third in the OECD. The overall picture is of an exceptionally robust democracy. 

Alas, no democracy is perfect. The recent scandal about attempts by some parties to subvert the spirit of political finance regulation is but one example of the many areas in which Swedish democracy needs reform. Indeed, the country continues to embrace a lax approach to political finance, anchored in the generous availability of public funding for parties, and in which private political donations and party and candidate expenditures are practically unregulated, except for the obligation to report the origin of donations above 24,150 kronor. Sweden is one of very few European countries that lack reporting requirements for party spending. It is also one of the few countries where foreign political donations are legal. The latter have been banned in 77 percent of European countries, including Finland, Iceland and Norway. The current set of political finance regulations is an accident waiting to happen, and we may have just seen the first evidence of the risks involved. 

A much more serious weakness –one repeatedly pointed out by experts—concerns the ease with which the constitutional framework can be amended. As of today, any provision of the Swedish Constitution can be changed by two simple majority votes in Parliament with an intervening election, in a process that could take a little more than one year. At no point in the process a qualified majority is needed. One shudders at what a Viktor Orbán-like leader could do to the basic tenets of democracy and the rule of law on the back of a transient majority. Is such figure likely to emerge soon in Sweden? Maybe not, but in an age of increasing polarisation and global headwinds against democracy the probability is considerably greater than zero.

Herein lies the crux of the matter. The past success of democracy in Sweden has created an atmosphere in which it is easy to dismiss the need for reforms. The glaring feature of the Swedish electoral and political system –one visible to any foreigner, particularly one who, like me, comes from Latin America—is the astonishing levels of trust upon which it is based. Trust in Parliament, political parties, and the national government in Sweden dwarfs even the EU average (72 percent vs 34 percent, 38 percent vs 19 percent and 58 percent vs 34 percent, all according to Statista). There’s no question that such levels of trust are well earned when one looks at the track record of democratic institutions in the country. But past is not always prologue. The real question is whether unshakable trust is a valid operating premise for any democratic system that wants to endure in this age of ominous threats to democracy. Who could deny, for example, that the reluctance to ban foreign political donations is spectacularly ill advised in an age of well documented transnational efforts to subvert democracy?

No democracy is immune to backsliding. The health of any democracy requires eternal vigilance on society’s part. Whatever each of us may think about the tenor of current political debates in Sweden about migration and public order, it seems clear that political elites and a large part of society have recognised that the mores that worked well for the country in the past may need to be rethought in the face of a different world. It is open to question if the same realisation has dawned upon as many people with regards to Sweden’s constitutional and electoral rules. When it comes to the latter, the country seems determined to cling to an illustrious past and vaporous notions of trust. These premises will be put to test sooner or later. Sweden’s democracy is very strong, but it deserves to be protected in a more active and muscular way. This for its own sake, but also for what it means to the world.

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OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 

Finland, Poland and the Baltic states are stopping Russians from leaving Russia. It would be a tragedy if Sweden did the same, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 
An iron curtain is descending across Europe. But in contrast to the beginning of the Cold War, the curtain is being drawn down by EU countries – not Russia. 

Any day now, Finland is poised to ban Russians from entering the country on tourist visas, to keep out men who want to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine. Announcing the policy, the country’s foreign minister said Finland was becoming “a transit country for Russians who want to leave their homeland for fear of being forced into war, and this traffic could harm Finland’s international position”. Opinion polls put 70 percent of the public in favour of a ban.

The number of Russians entering Finland doubled following Putin’s imposition a week ago of a “partial” mobilisation of men for the war effort in Ukraine. Finland’s Border Guard service is demanding a border fence 2.5m to 4m tall, topped with barbed wire, to keep the Russians out – an idea that taken seriously by the government.

Our Nordic neighbour is following a trend: the Baltics and Poland have already put an end to visas for Russians, including conscientious objectors to the war. The Czech Republic said last week that Russian deserters will not receive asylum. 

“We see them not as antiwar people, we see them as anti-fighting-the-war people,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, told the New York Times. “They were not fleeing Russia when Bucha happened, when Kyiv was shelled or when any other horrific things happened in Ukraine.”

Latvia’s foreign minister chipped in: “Many Russians who now flee Russia because of mobilisation were fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then. It is not right to consider them as conscientious objectors. There are considerable security risks admitting them and plenty of countries outside EU to go to.”

The EU is under pressure from some of these countries to ban Russian tourists, and has already made it much harder for Russians to get tourist visas. But the bloc is divided. Politicians from across the political spectrum in Germany, for example, want to offer asylum to Russian deserters. 

Sweden is starting to debate this question. As a shiny new member of Nato, some Swedes feel we need to show how tough we can be towards the Russian threat. And with a new government keen to stress its anti-immigration credentials, Stockholm may also be tempted to punish Russian travellers because of their brutal government. 

In a situation already tragic beyond the imagination, banning Russian draft dodgers would only add to the tragedy in Europe.

Men of fighting age have been brought up on a diet of state propaganda, pumping nationalism, racism, militarism and hatred of the West into the Russian mainstream. Access to independent and social media has been extremely restricted. Opposition to the “military operation” in Ukraine is punishable by 15 years in jail.

In these circumstances, the mood has changed slowly, fuelled by snippets of official information, incidents such as the death of a friend, social media posts and kitchen conversations. But the steady drip drip of doubt and fear has filled the cup to overflowing. 

Then came last week’s mobilisation, and the pace of change accelerated. Family men without military experience are being dragooned into the army and sent to the front line. A wave of anger has swept across the nation, with arson attacks on army recruitment offices, thousands of arrests and a revolt in Dagestan. The country’s security service itself says 261,000 men fled Russia in barely a week. At one point there was a queue of cars 13km long at the border with Kazakhstan.

For EU nations to turn away Russians who don’t want to fight in Ukraine is to abandon them in their hour of need. At they very moment when they are most open to alternative facts about the war in Ukraine, we would conform to the Kremlin’s propaganda picture of the West as hostile, self-interested and Russian-hating. 

Denying draft dodgers the right to get out of Russia means painting them all as representatives of an enemy with whom we are at war. There might be some short-term political benefits in terms of “uniting the nation”, but this would leave a deep scar on the European psyche.

The debate in Europe has not gone unnoticed in the White House, where the US National Security Council has cautioned against seeing all Russians as universally responsible for the disaster in Ukraine. 

“We also continue to believe it’s important to draw a line between the actions of the Russian government and the Russian people,” a spokesperson told the Financial Times. “We wouldn’t want to close off pathways to refuge and safety for Russia’s dissidents or others who are vulnerable to human rights abuses.”

Sweden has a history of welcoming men who don’t want to fight in unjust wars. Between 1967 and 1973, Sweden granted asylum to around 800 Americans fleeing the Vietnam war. Fifty years later, the decision by the European Court of Justice that Syrian draft dodgers can claim asylum in Europe gives Sweden the legal basis to extend this right to Russians.

What is happening now in Russia could be the beginning of the end of the war in Ukraine, and of the Putin regime. Sweden should welcome with open arms all Russians who would rather get out than be sent to kill Ukrainians. And we should pressure other EU countries to do the same. 

It is likely that Russia will soon close its own borders to stop men from escaping. But let’s not give them an excuse to do so. 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.