Last week gave us the 2010 edition of Almedalsveckan, the week when the chattering classes of Stockholm descend on the small town of Visby on Gotland. To put it in another way, it is the Swedish equivalent of the infamous Hellerup-week in Skagen with a dose of politics thrown in for good measure.
This year’s Almedalsvecka held some interest as it was the last major event before the campaign for the 2010 election really begins in late August. The former leader of the Left Party, Gudrun Schyman, who is trying to take Feminist Initiative into parliament for the second time made some kind of performance with potentially ironic effects.
For those into political parties, I should note that Statsvetenskaplig Tidsskrift published a special edition (pdf) covering changes in Swedish parties and held two seminars dealing with the left and right side of the spectrum, respectively.
All party leaders make a speech during the week, those where manuscripts or transcriptions have been published can be found here.
And the there was the Littorin Affair which as such had nothing to do with Almedalsveckan, except that it happened to be published during the week and more or less diverted media attention away from what else was happening. To make a long story short, the tabloid Aftonbladet alleged that the conservative labour market minister Sven Otto Littorin of buying sex from a prostitute in 2006, something which is illegal in Sweden but a crime which is prescribed after two years. As far as we know, the story is based only on the testimony of the woman, Littorin allegedly had sex with. Following the initial allegations (not made public initially), Littorin resigned citing a conflict with his ex-wife over the custody of their children and aggressive attempts by journalists to contact his family. After his resgination, Littorin has disappeared from the public eye but (indirectly) denies any wrongdoing. We have also been told that Littorin is involved in a custody fight with his ex-wife and that he has received some kind of treatment for depressive episodes earlier.
The story raises a number of tricky questions which are difficult the answer. My observations so far:
1. Aftonbladet’s behaviour was completely predictable. First, there were “allegations”, then the paper “considered” publishing the story and finally it published the interview with the woman in question. A typical strategy when news media wants to set the agenda while pretending only to be reporting. And sell copies for successive days. (Aftonbladet’s editor interviewed by Svenska Dagbladet)
2. Littorin and prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt were in a lose-lose situation. Given the status (prescribed) of the alleged crime, there is no way police and courts will be taking up the case even if he has payed for sex. If Littorin did not buy sex from the woman in question, the only way he could clear his name would be through a civil libel case. An impossible situation for a government minister, especially in the run-up to an election.
3. Fredrik Reinfeldt’s handling of the case has been criticised for being unclear and lacking in empathy. What may be more important, the opposition Social Democrats have used the story to attack Reinfeldt. The scandal comes at an early time in the election campaign but given the surprisingly weak support for the opposition in recent polls, we should not rule out the possibility of a very dirty campaign. (More about Reinfeldt’s handling and the non-mentioning of the prostitution allegations)
4. Littorin has showed bad judgement before. In 2007 it emerged that he held an “MBA” from Fairfax University, a non-accredited university (and possibly a diploma mill) based in the US. The MBA was consequently removed from his resumé. His track record is a liability, regardless of which version of the story is true this time.
5. Littorin has claimed that he has been under treatment for a heart condition and depressions. I haven’t followed Swedish politics on a 24/7 basis for the past two years, but this has been under my radar and begs the question if a government minister can be seriously ill without the public being informed. Here the strategy of the former Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik after he suffered a depressive episode could stand as a model of good communication. That Littorin has suffered from stress symptoms following his divorce is not surprising, and fighting a custody battle in the media is probably not a very good idea, but I think the case can be made the the public should be informed about the cause in general terms if a government minister is incapacitated for a period of time.
6. Finally, the story is all the more embarrassing for the Conservative Party as the justice minister Beatrice Ask presented a rather strange proposal to send letters containing papers in cases involving prostitution in envelopes with conspicuous colours to the accused (before a possible sentencing). Even if the idea seems to have been thrown out, the Swedish Conservatives will find it hard to complain about the way media have treated Sven Otto Littorin.