Following the publication of the Disaster Commission’s report, there has been considerable uncertainty about the political consequences of the – judged by Swedish standards – extremely harsh criticism against government ministers and leading civil servants presented in the report.
The centre-right parties have appeared insecure in the question. Right now, the impression is that the four parties will refer the matter to the Constitutional Committee in the Swedish parliament rather than call for a vote of no confidence against PM Göran Persson or Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds. (See for instance this report in Dagens Nyheter)
In this way the parties may hope to keep the question on the political agenda up to the elections in September. The Social Democratic response has been to accuse the centre-right of exploiting the tsunami disaster for electoral purposes.
We also see attempts by Social Democratic media to downplay the importance of the criticism: One line of argument is, that since the Swedish government did not cause the tsunami, it would be unfair to criticise the handling of the disaster; another that crisis management is less relevant on the political agenda compared to labour market policy (This comment in the Social Democratic periodical Aktuellt i Politiken may serve as an example of the line of argument).
Interestingly, Göran Persson already last Thursday in an interview in the news programme Aktuellt tried to undermine any criticism from the Centre Party by arguing that the party had supported the government in its rejection of calls for the establishing of a crisis management group within the Prime Minister’s Office (Thursday’s programme can still be watched through this link).
From the point of view of a political scientist, the interesting question is why it is almost impossible to demand political accountability in Sweden. I would argue that there are two possible answers, which do not exclude each other.
Alternative 1: Social Democratic Hegemony
For 73 years, Sweden has been ruled by Social Democratic governments. The only exceptions were a short interlude during the summer of 1936, a succession of weak and highly unstable centre-right coalitions between 1976 and 1982 and finally Carl Bildt’s four-party coalition which soon after taking office in 1991 discovered that it had to rely on Social Democratic support if it wanted to lead any kind of economic policy.
In the end voters realised that the Social Democrats were the only credible government alternative.
This logic also applies to some crucial parliamentary crises. In 1990, the Left Part tried to threaten the government under Ingvar Carlsson to abandon parts of an economic crisis package only to find that it would either force an early election – and bring a centre-right government to power – or accept the government’s policies.
Following the 2002 election, the Green Party tried to enhance its negotiating position vis-à-vis the Social Democrats by leading talks with the centre parties. Again the threat turned out to be impossible to enforce politically and the Social Democrats were able to control the political agenda.
To sum up: In the present situation, the opposition could of cause call for a vote of non-confidence against either the government or individual ministers but the move would not only fail; the government would continue convinced that no outside forces would be able to threaten it.
In analytic terms there is no “exit” opportunity in the Swedish political system which means that distrust against a Social Democratic government can only be expressed through “voice” (i.e. criticism) within the party or a decline of “loyalty” among voters (note the decline in turn-out at the last elections) and party activists (note that the P.M. increasingly picks his ministers outside of traditional party ranks).
As the internal criticism against Göran Persson and – to a lesser degree – Laila Freivalds is muted and as the party leadership clearly tries to dismiss any external criticism as unjustified politicking, the probability of any resignations is low.
Alternative 2: The Political and Administrative Tradition
One strange aspect of Swedish politics and administration, which immigrant social scientists find it hard to adjust to, is that the country has been put together by not one, but an endless number of committees.
Committee or collegial rule was a well-known element in early modern European public administration. Two advantages of collegial rule were that, first, it allowed for cooptation of elites into the royal administration, while at the same time limiting opponents’ chances of building alternative power bases.
In most other countries, collegial rule fell out of favour during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Colleges were seen as inefficient compared to bureaucracies because they carried with them the possibilities of dispersing responsibility for decisions. Another reason why governments increasingly chose the bureaucratic model for public administration was the widespread corruption connected with collegial and other traditional forms of administration (See for instance this article in Wikipedia as an introduction to the subject).
Political and administrative modernisation in Sweden both pre- and post-dated the bureaucratic era of the mid-19th century.
The foundations of the Swedish public administration were laid during the Freedom Era in the 18th century – the tradition of semi-independent executive agencies as the backbone of the public administration dates back to the mid-18th century – but Sweden never really embraced bureaucracy and the concept of individual responsibility and accountability in the way other Western countries did.
Unlike their Danish or Norwegian counterparts, Swedish government ministers are strictly speaking not the political heads of their respective departments but rather rapporteurs who act as links between the departmental colleges and the government college.
In this way the political reluctance to demand individual accountability reflects an established administrative tradition.
And So What?
Defenders of the Swedish model may argue that the Danish and Norwegian Foreign Offices performed just as poorly as their Swedish counterpart during the tsunami crisis. In other words, individual responsibility and accountability in themselves do not make a government more efficient than a collegial type of government.
On the other hand the long-term fall-out of the tsunami crisis was much more limited in Denmark and Norway. The Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, quickly recognised the scope of the disaster and in an unusual move devoted all of his traditional New Year’s Speach to the subject of disaster relief.
This is of cause a counterfactual argument but I would suspect that the Danish government would have faced strong criticism that could have been potentially damaging in the upcoming election, if Fogh Rasmussen had not made a forceful statement on the subject that day.
The point here is that a) the Danish political system is much more competitive than the Swedish, which makes politicians more responsive to public concerns, and b) individual ministers, including the P.M., are expected to react immediately and visibly to criticism because of the individual nature of responsibility and accountability.