From abroad - In Sweden, transparency without obstruction

From abroad - In Sweden, transparency without obstruction

Education, healthcare, gender equality… The “Swedish Model” is used as a point of comparison with the French in many regards, often at the expense of the latter. But what about its political life? Lou Marilier (prom 15), correspondent in Stockholm, takes us on a fascinating journey into what this model means in terms of transparency and exemplarity, and what has helped keep it alive and well.

The Riksdag, the Parliament of Sweden (CC-Wikimedia Commons)

The Riksdag, the Parliament of Sweden (CC-Wikimedia Commons)

After former Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlander died in 1985, his wife showed up at the Swedish Government’s office, holding a box filled with pens labeled “Property of the Treasury”. Since her husband wouldn’t use it anymore, she thought they were not hers to keep. So, she returned them. “The story fits very strongly with the mindset of what it means to have a public position here”, commented Bo Rothstein, political science professor and director of the Quality of Government Institute in Gothenburg. “There is a very strong perception that the public sector is for the common good, not for securing the power of a small elite.” The anecdote has indeed become a sort of urban legend in a country where taxpayers money better not be used for any kind of personal gain… free pens included.

Examples are plenty to show what happens to those who dare circumvent this golden rule. “The tolerance for malpractice is very low in Sweden,” explained Rothstein. In the notorious “Toblerone Scandal” of the mid-90s, the then Deputy Prime Minister Mona Sahlin had to resign when evening paper Espressen revealed she had used her credit card for personal expenses. She admitted to have rented a car and bought pampers, cigarettes and the chocolate bars that gave the affair its name, for a total of approximately 5000 euros. She had returned the money immediately, but the damage was done. Mona Sahlin was never tried by a tribunal: her sentence was delivered by the Swedish people. After the scandal, polls showed 66% of Swedes would not consider her suitable to become Prime Minister, although she used to be the most likely candidate. Two other Ministers had to resign in 2006: one had failed to declare her holiday house, the other her children's babysitter, as well as to pay the public service television fee. “In Britain and the US, sex is very sensitive. In Sweden, money is very sensitive”,commented Swedish Press Ombudsman Ola Sigvardsson.

In 1995, Deputy Prime Minister Mona Sahlin had to resign when evening paper Espressen revealed she had used her credit card for personal expenses.

In 1995, Deputy Prime Minister Mona Sahlin had to resign when evening paper Espressen revealed she had used her credit card for personal expenses.

“Legislation is good, but it’s overrated”

Interestingly, Swedish legislation on corruption, although strengthened in 2012 to include trading in influence and negligent financing of bribery, is not especially harsh. Bo Rothstein, who has been examining laws of countries all over the world, did not find it to be a determining factor. “Legislation is good, but it’s overrated”, he said. “There is a specific historical trajectory for the Nordic countries that makes them different from other countries.” According to him, Swedish laws passed over the years on for example education or gender equality, and the establishment of one of the OECD’s highest taxation system all make up Sweden’s “more indirect than direct approach” to corruption prevention.

Sweden was also the first country in the world to have written Freedom of Press in its Constitution in 1776, which included the “principle of free access to public records”, a national pride. In practice, this means any Swede has free access to all public documents, including any civil servant’s travel or accommodation expenditures. Swedish journalists use this the most, and are widely recognized for the role they play in Sweden’s systematically good performance in the Transparency International index: always in the top six, often in the top three of 176 countries. “I think media is a very important factor here”, said Madeleine Leijonhufvud, criminal law professor and former chairwoman of the Swedish Anti-Corruption Institute. “For me, being a lawyer, it is strange that it seems to be the main way of handling corruption.”

The media, safeguard against corruption

Scandals and resignations are indeed most often the result of media investigations. In January, three officials of the governmental agency in charge of Sweden’s most famous lands and castles were arrested following a Swedish TV4 investigation program called “Kalla Fakta”. A former manager was accused of moving into one of the castles he was in charge of, renting out buildings belonging to the agency and using public funds to refurbish his summer homes. “They used the taxpayers money like an ATM”, summed up Per Hermanrud, the investigative reporter who produced the program. Sources often come to him with tips, thanks to an extensively protective Swedish legislation. Not only is it forbidden by law for Swedish journalists to disclose their sources, but anyone working within a public institutions is also banned from trying to find out who tipped reporters. This makes it very easy for policemen, for instance, to tip journalists on the crimes that end up on the tabloids’ front pages. Most importantly, it strongly encourages public servants to act when confronted to a transgression.

Per Hermanrud, investigation reporter for TV4 program Kalla Fakta - (© Lou Marillier)

Per Hermanrud, investigation reporter for TV4 program Kalla Fakta - (© Lou Marillier)

After being tipped on this latest case, Hermanrud required documents to verify his findings. He very easily got access to the former manager’s personal number, the Swedish equivalent to a social security number. “The personal number is the key to get any information”, explained Hermanrud. “Then you get what companies they’re involved in, their income for the last 15 years, what grades they had when they went to school…”

Politicians are very well aware of the media’s scrutiny on their finances. “They’re afraid of journalists looking into it”, said Hermanrud. Jens Holm, a Member of Parliament from the Left Party, agreed the frequent reports on MPs overspending had a very direct impact on his behavior: “I’m very cautious, I do not want to figure in those kind of reports, and I think most of the MPs think similarly.”

“Live like ordinary Swedes”

This concern for exemplarity if reflected in the way politicians are generally expected to lead their lives. For ministers, whatever privileges come with the job – drivers, accommodation for prime ministers only, secretary – also terminate with it. Privileges are attached to the function, not the person, noted Ove Nilsson, chairman of the Commission which sets the ministers’ salaries every year: “As a minister, you can rely on the staff of the ministry, but you don’t have your own secretary.” This marks a stark difference with the French system, where even after François Hollande considerably decreased the privileges of former presidents, they still keep their accommodation and three collaborators (seven in the first five years) paid for life. French former prime ministers retain for life a car and a chauffeur, as well as a secretary.

The members of the Parliament regime suffers the same contrast. While Swedish MPs get a pay of approximately 6500 euros, entirely subject to regular taxation, they do not receive allowance for collaborators, or opaque envelopes for expenditures like in France. They get access to free public transportation, but only while on the job. A Center Party Member of Parliament has, for example, come under fire in March this year after Espressen revealed he used bonus points of the travel card provided by the Riksdag (Parliament) to pay for his wine and personal travels.

Yet, every year, the Left party introduces a motion to lower the amount of their pay. “First and foremost, we represent the Swedish people, and we must live like ordinary swedes”, explained Jens Holm. “I could spend more money but the idea is that I shouldn’t drink champagne every day or stay at fancy hotels, the idea is that this will force us to live a normal life”, he insisted. As a former Member of the European Parliament, Holm remembered, incredulous, the salary he then received. Altogether, European Members of Parliaments are paid €12,826 monthly, as well as a flat-rate allowance of €306 per day during parliamentary activity periods. “You can become a millionaire”, he said. “I was appalled at the amount of money they poured over me.”

Jens Holm, Left Party Member of Parliament, in the Riksdag's canteen - © Lou Marillier

Jens Holm, Left Party Member of Parliament, in the Riksdag's canteen - © Lou Marillier

Others within the Riksdag consider the MPs’ pay, although a bit more than twice the average salary in Sweden, is just high enough to attract qualified members. “We work all days all nights and all year long”, said Center party Member of Parliament Solveig Zander. “So, I think it’s enough, and I don’t think it should be lower, because most of us had a better salary than that before we came to Parliament.” Two to three times a week, this representative of a constituency north of Stockholm sleeps in her one-bedroom accommodation, provided by the Riksdag to all members who live at least 50 kilometers away, for a rent up to 905€ a month. Former Speaker and Minister of Justice Björn von Sydow, who lives 49,4 km away, missed his chance by a whisker. He brushes this misfortune off: “Where I live, quite a lot of people commute everyday to Stockholm and they don’t get a compensation for that !”

Against corruption, a bottom-up approach

The apparent awareness of its politicians doesn’t mean Sweden is immune from corruption, far from it: but it has, historically, given itself the means to prevent it. “We have created a society that from the bottom up has a very powerful tool against corruption”, said Ola Sigvardsson, Press Ombudsman of Sweden. The Press Council he heads is entirely funded by press associations and is independent from the State. Sigvardsson receives grievances from individuals and judges media on the harm they have inflicted, issuing public criticism when complaints are upheld. The Council was the first of its kind in the world, imitated in 50 countries, but not yet in France. “I often use this front page as an example”, said the Press Ombudsman, slamming a copy of Nouvel Observateur on his desk to explain the importance of his institution. Half of the 2013 issue of the magazine is covered by a legal notice, which it was forced to publish after being condemned by the French courts for 'invasion of privacy' of fallen French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. “I say: let’s protect self-regulation of the press, otherwise we will have it like in France !”

L'opinion est-elle une science exacte ?

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