The massive earthquake which hit Indonesia early on Boxing Day 2004 and which triggered a giant tsunami in the Indian Ocean still sends its aftershocks through Swedish politics.
Compared to the size of its population, Sweden was hit hard by the tsunami: Immediately after the tsunami, around 3.500 Swedes, most of them tourists in Thailand were reported missing, and as of October 2005, ca. 550 Swedes are reported dead. (Source Wikipedia.se). This would correspond to around 15.000 casualties or four times the number of deaths in the September 11 attacks, had the U.S. been hit by a disaster of the same relative magnitude.
It is not the first time in modern history that Sweden has been hit by such a massive disaster: In September 1994 the ferry Estonia sank on its route between Tallin and Stockholm and more than 800 people, most of them Swedes, died. Even though the emergency operation was relatively effective, the investigation into that disaster was criticised for being inconclusive. The disaster also raised the question of how such emergencies should be handled by the Swedish state.
The Problems with Crisis Management
In the hours and days following the 2004 disaster, the efforts of the Swedish Foreign Office seemed insufficient and uncoordinated and the FO was immediately criticised for causing delays in the organisation of care and transport for the injured and the identification of the dead. It quickly emerged that nearly all government ministers were on holiday and that none of the ministers – including the Prime Minister Göran Persson and the Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds – had made an active effort to follow reports about the disaster.
Only the Minister for Development Carin Jämtin played an active role in the crisis management while Defence Minister Leni Björklund had followed news reports and was aware of the disaster and its implications for Sweden but was unable to act because of illness.
It may be worth noting that all of the Scandinavian countries experienced an inefficient response from the respective Foreign Offices but the political impact has been greater in Sweden because of the large number of deaths and a general impression of detachment from the general public on the part of the government.
The Swedish FO was immediately heavily criticised and in January 2005 the Swedish government called an investigation led by the President of the Svea Hovrätt Johan Hirschfeldt into the management of the tsunami crisis. The investigation committee delivered its report this Thursday and according to media reports, the report contains a severe criticism not only of the organisation of the relief work but also of several individuals, including the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the leading civil servants in the Foreign Office.
This kind – and degree – of criticism is very unusual in Sweden and the publication of the report has started a discussion of political and administrative accountability in Sweden.
As the report – which can be downloaded here – is 350 pages long with some 650 pages of appendices, I haven’t had the time to read the report or parts of it in any detail but here I will try to give a review of the media coverage and discussion.
The Media Coverage
As most media in Sweden are either politically independent or leaning towards the centre-right of the political spectrum, it can be no surprise that the efforts of the Social Democratic government has drawn most criticism.
Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds seems to be the one minister in greatest political danger. Especially the tabloid Expressen has called for her resignation, but most other newspapers are deeply sceptical about her performance. A op-ed article in Saturday’s Expressen – “Persson has to sack one minister before Christmas – sums up this debate pretty well.
Another line of argument concerns the future of PM Göran Persson. Initially the centre-right parties in the Swedish parliament did not want to call for a vote of no confidence – on the grounds that they would lose the vote and that such a call would cosequently only be a symbolic act – but several newspapers and some backbenchers have started to demand Persson’s resignation.
Persson was given a relatively mild treatment by the public broadcaster Sveriges Television – he did not have to face his political opponents directly, for instance – but TV News have also given prominent coverage to political scientists such as Olof Petersson and Leif Lewin who argue that Sweden lacks a culture of personal accountability and that resignations would send the right signals to the electorate.
Correction: In the original post, Johan Hirschfeldt’s position was described as President of the Swedish Supreme Court. Hirschfeldt is the president of Svea Hovrätt, one of the High Courts of Sweden.