Green Horizon Magazine

The Swedish Greens: Which Way Forward?

October 11th, 2013  |  Published in Beyond the U.S.

Written by Ralph Mono



A fierce campaign against nuclear power and then a referendum in Sweden in early  1980 started it all – or perhaps released all the built-up political frustrations. The set-up  of the referendum was meant to give a “yes” or “no” to continued use of nuclear power  plants in Sweden, but was seen by many as manipulated by the then five established  political parties in the Swedish parliament.  

Three voting options had been presented – two “yes” and one “no”. The somewhat  “green” Center Party and the Left Party supported NGOs, environmentalists, gender  groups and other activists for a “no” and instead encouraged development of alternative  energy. The Conservatives campaigned for a “yes” to nuclear power. As did the Social  Democrats, though they wanted their own “yes” option. Their main position was that  nuclear power plants needed to be owned by the State, something that the  Conservatives opposed. Consequently, the Conservatives and Social Democrats were  able to turn public worry about the safety of nuclear power plants into a traditional  right-left economic-political issue of who should own them.


The “yes” campaigns won and the environmentalists, anti-nuclear power activists,  groups working for gender equality, peace organizations and others on the losing side  felt the core issue, and thus the outcome, had been manipulated and the general public  worry about nuclear power had been ignored. Having just campaigned together, these  groups knew each other well and had realized that they shared similar political ideas  and a vision of another kind of society. They believed that care for the environment,  individual and gender rights, attention to human development and similar issues were  important even if that meant slower economic or material development. Political   scientists, intellectuals and some journalists also sensed that a “paradigm shift” might take  place in Swedish politics, away from a simple focus on economic growth and towards  care for the environment, saving natural resources and giving priority to human needs.  This was the context in which the Swedish Green Party was formed in September  1981, one year ahead of the general elections of September 1982. The Greens set about  building a campaign to surpass the 4% threshold for entering the Swedish Parliament  as well as to make it into regional and local political bodies.   The proportional electoral system in Sweden seemed to make a Green breakthrough  possible. But the Party faced great challenges. No new political party had actually  entered the Swedish Parliament for the last 70 years or so. And while opinion polls were  favorable to the Greens in late spring 1982 (running at 5-7%), getting the actual votes  would be a lot harder. On the practical side, ballots had to be paid for and distributed,  participation in media political debates must be negotiated, political information had to be  distributed and not least: candidates had to be filed at all levels and in all parts of the country.   While the Greens themselves went about this with enthusiasm, other political parties  were either silent or dismissed the party completely. The media in general, however, failed to sense the changing political atmosphere in Sweden and  some publicly made fun of the new party. As an early spokesperson  for the party, I was once asked by a main radio news anchor,  close to losing his temper with the stubborn spokesperson: “But  how on earth is it possible to be outside the right-left political  scale?”


The onslaught from the political establishment in combination  with the political inexperience of the Green candidates proved  to be disastrous. Nationally the Greens failed, receiving only  1.6% nationally and thus not making it into Parliament.  However, regionally and locally the Greens were able to secure  in total around 100 seats. In retrospect, the outcome was probably  very fortunate for the Greens; the political experience and effective  political action needed for national political work in Parliament  first had to be built at the local level.  In the early days of the Swedish Green Party, its asset was thought  by many followers to be its radicalism. The Greens were not like any  other party, fine-tuning shades of capitalist or socialist societies and  finding its own nesting place on the right-left political scale. The  Greens really wanted to transform society, making living in it mean- ingful beyond material wealth, implementing full gender equality,  preventing economic growth from taking over politics and saving  the world from resource depletion and ecological disaster.  The following general elections in 1985 dealt another blow,  even harder than the first, to the Green parliamentary dream.  Election results were even worse this time than in 1982, down  to 1.5%. However, at regional and local level they were slightly  up, perhaps a sign that the Greens were learning their trade.  PARLIAMENTARY BREAKTHROUGH AT LAST

A further three years later, the prospects for the Greens brightened.  Environmental problems were extensively reported in the  media, the Greens made a successful election campaign and  capable spokespersons gained more voter confidence. These factors  together finally catapulted the Greens over the 4% threshold  into the Swedish parliament in September 1988. The Greens had  now “opened up” politics in Sweden and become the first new  political party entering Parliament in 75 years. The Greens had  moreover shown that new issues, new political solutions and a new  political party could be introduced on the Swedish political scene.


The new parliamentary party was, however, still both politically  inexperienced and “fundamentalist Green” and turned out to be  anything but effective in its parliamentary work. Many Green  MPs routinely questioned their own elected leaders, often publicly,  and individual opinions and egos in the parliamentary group  made coordinated and effective political action virtually impossible.  Internal suspicion toward “power concentration” soon grew  while constituencies and the electorate tended to be ignored.  Long before the general elections of 1991 it was clear that the  Greens would then be thrown out of Parliament.   Perhaps even this early electoral failure was a blessing in disguise  for the Greens. The fundamentalist approach had had its chance  and was now severely questioned internally. A long and difficult  process toward “realistic” politics began. The decentralized party  committees were given up in favor of a single, more efficient  party board. Political issues were re-formulated with the electorate  and a three parliamentary term political perspective in mind.  Radical ideas of a Swedish “green” utopia were sidelined.


At the 1994 general elections, the Greens were able to make a  parliamentary comeback. But being reorganized and clear on  general policies is one thing, knowing how to vote “Green” on  every day-to-day political issues at national, regional and local  political levels is quite another. But with major internal conflicts  put aside, the Greens now learned to work efficiently.   Today, the Greens still seem by far the most imaginative and  creative party among the present eight in the Swedish  Parliament. Environmental issues, gender equality, decentral- ized organization and other Green issues have been fought fairly  successfully by the Greens since 1994, also resulting in other  parties picking up many of the Green ideas. In the 2010 election,  the Greens had advanced from Sweden’s sixth to its third largest  party in Parliament, after the Social Democrats and the  Conservatives.   With the Green success, the big question surfaces; how do  you remain a large political party if you have a political platform  that advocates fundamental political change in Swedish society?  It is quite clear that the Green agenda goes against what has  been the driving force of the Swedish economy and its politics  for decades and even centuries: focus on economic growth,  increased resource use for higher material wealth, more pollution,  economic interests before human health and before nature, etc?  Just one example, how do you “sell” dramatically increased gasoline  prices to the voters?


If the Greens continue to increase their votes at the 2014 election,  will their long term goal of fundamentally transforming society  still be advocated? Today, “the environment” has become only  one among many political issues that the Greens advocate. At  the same time, all other political parties have adopted policies  from the “Green” agenda. Success or failure? Perhaps a little of  both. Awareness and action is greater than when the Green  Party was created, yet one of the most serious environmental  issues – climate change – is continuing at an alarming rate  despite the rise of quite influential and committed Green parties  all around the world since the 1970s.  So why are the Greens, in Sweden or in other countries, not  doing or being able to do more to stop this and other threats to humans or the environment? In my opinion there are many reasons  for this and I will highlight a few.  Change, real change takes a long time! Changing fundamental  mental perspectives and beliefs may require a time span of sev- eral generations – particularly so if we consider just how  ingrained the old ones have become over centuries. Heating  sources for buildings, transportation networks, economic infra- structure cannot be changed rapidly, nor can oil or gas depend- ence. In addition, great changes do not occur in isolation.  Nations are today globally interdependent and no fuel or energy  tax could be implemented in just some countries. Conversely,  solutions to the global problems can only be implemented  through global cooperation.  Since politicians primarily have to account for their actions on  a short term basis – between two elections – “short term”  becomes their planning horizon. This obviously is a real problem  when many of the world s serious problems require long term  solutions, often involving short term sacrifices.   Voter interest or awareness of problems and available possibilities  for solutions are often not great enough to put pressure on  politicians to act and solve even well know problems.  Just as competition between parties can be an asset for the  voter, so competition may also be a great problem. One party  may think it stands to gain if other parties fail and therefore  choose not to cooperate to achieve (long term) solutions.   So, how could the Greens, or any political party for that matter,  transform Swedish society despite these and a host of other  obstacles?


This is a monumental question with no simple answer. But it  has to be asked because of the severe global problems the world  faces and because this is the task that the Greens set out to do.  My thoughts, having contributed to the creation of the Greens  in 1981 and worked with them for many years, would be:  First, of course, when creating day-to-day politics, always go  back to the basic Green party vision. Focus the political message  clearly, but work with the “whole”.  Second, for a party which so obviously has one foot in the “here  and now” and the other in a transformed future, it is necessary  to always strike a balance between old and new, between long  term and short term. Nobody can make an immediate jump to  the future, and so real change needs to be gradual but steady.  Third, build long term alliances with movements, organizations,  interest groups, etc who have or are likely to have a long term  interest in supporting your vision and basic goals. For the  Swedish Greens, that most probably includes environment,  gender equality, peace, human rights, nature and internationally  oriented movements as well as groups in society like the young,  students, teachers, small businesses, scientists, new technology  developers, etc. The list could be made very long.  The fourth area of interest would be the whole Green Part relationship with its present and potential voters, particularly in  the long term. So much is routinely being said about the need  for strong leadership, but very little attention is paid to the fact  that a leader is nothing without its followers. The knowledge  about “followership” is now being studied by researchers and  expanding in the business world. There are examples of companies  where followers have been much more important to the success  of the company than its leaders. An individual follows a political  leader because of a belief or conviction, without being paid (as  in the case of an employee situation). Building long term trust  and loyalty between politicians and voters as well as exchanging  knowledge, awareness and political thoughts on solutions would  therefore be the best way to try to create commitment and a  basis for long term political change.  Lastly, politics is “the art of the possible” between any two  elections. Not all politicians are creative enough or dare be very  creative in such a short time span. However, finding a “creative”  solution to get out of an ”old” political conflict or deadlock, is  often the best way to move forward.


The prospects for the Swedish general elections in 2014 are  good. The Greens may increase its share of the voters further,  perhaps even of taking part in a new coalition Government.   But the question is: will 2014 be the time when a larger  Swedish Green party will be content to adjust to politics as usual,  with just a tint of Green? Or will it be the starting point when  the Greens will both get more votes and be capable to creatively  and aggressively move forward with the substantial issues they  were created to help solve?

Ralph Mono led the Swedish Friends of Earth in the late  1970s before being convinced that the Green  movement also needed parliamentary representation. Ralph was elected member of the first  Green party political committee in 1981 and for  a time served as Green Party spokesperson  before the 1982 general elections. He was also  full time International Secretary for the Greens  1989-91 and Head of Offices 1999-2001. Ralph has also been Secretary  General for the Federation of European Green Parties 1995-99 in Brussels  and participated in several national green Party conferences in the US  during that time. In addition to Green party involvement, Ralph has  spent many years working for the Swedish Government in the field of  development cooperation, including about 15 years in the field in  Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Serbia and most recently in Albania.   Ralph is currently Director for ULI Geoforum, a Swedish interest organization for development of geographic information and based in Stockholm.

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