Green Horizon Magazine

The Swedish Greens: Which Way Forward?

December 19th, 2012  |  Published in Beyond the U.S., Top Stories

Swedish Greens

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 meaningful 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.


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?

COULD THE GREENS ACHIEVE MORE?  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 several 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 dependence. 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

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