Judging by Danish media coverage, the fact that both major blocs in Sweden have now presented their electoral platforms is without relevance. After all, the seven parties only look set to win some 94-95 percent of the vote in the coming and consequently the only theme of interest this side of Øresund is the remaining … well, not the remaining 6 percent because they include parties like F!, ND and what not, but 4 of the remaining 6 percent. The 4 percent which according to Ralf Pittelkow and likeminded represent the true soul of the Swedish electorate, i.e. those who would vote for the Sweden Democrats. Okay, at least Berlingske has the decency to relay a report about the latest opinion poll which is very grim news indeed for the Social Democrats.
The latest point of attack for those concerned about the true nature of Swedish democracy is the way ballot papers are distributed, another sure sign of the elite conspiracy to suppress the voice of True Sweden. Or something.
I will start by noting that the Swedish way of distributing ballot papers is indeed a bit strange – but in order to declare a electoral system undemocratic, serious commentators need to take all of the system and procedures into consideration. Once you do that, the argument that the Swedish electoral system is undemocratic looks questionable. The attacks are another example of the Sweden Democrats’ politics of victimhood and the use of Sweden by Danish right-wing commentators as a tool to define Danishness.
But to start with today’s issue: In Denmark, as in a lot of other countries, party lists and candidates are presented on one ballot paper which is printed and distributed by the relevant electoral authority. In Sweden, there is no single ballot paper – rather each party makes its own ballot paper which is then distributed to households and made available outside the polling stations. The electoral authority pays for some the ballot papers, depending of the performance of individual parties in previous elections. Besides printed papers, the electoral authority also distributes “blank” papers where votes may vote for a party by writing the name of the party. The voter casts his vote by placing the ballot paper in an envelope and putting it in the ballot box.
Technically, this means that anybody can see which ballot paper(s) any voter takes before he or she enters the polling station and this raises the question of privacy in the electoral process. What Danish commenters conveniently overlook is that most parties – including the Sweden Democrats – will distribute ballot papers to households in advance (remember that the envelope, not the paper inside is the guarantee that the vote is valid!), so voters can simply make their choice in the privacy of their homes, put the paper in their wallets and cast their vote without anybody having a chance of guessing their choice.
Danish critics might then argue that the Swedish system is less, if not democratic, then representative than the Danish in another aspect as there is a 4-percent threshold in parliamentary elections against the 2 percent threshold in Denmark. So the Sweden Democrats would have made it to the Riksdag several years ago if the Danish rules had been applied. Similarly, Germany – with one ballot paper – is less democratic than Denmark with a 5 percent threshold.
On the other hand, the Danish electoral system has a number of hurdles deliberately designed to make it very difficult for new parties to enter the race and get their list on the ballot paper. Parties not only have to register but also present a substantial number of signatures – in two rounds – in order to qualify. Similarly, not everyone gains access to televised debates. In many ways, Danish national politics are as much of a closed shop – or a cartel, if you like – as is Swedish politics.
Finally, should the European Council or OSCE send observers to the Swedish election? I have no reason to suspect systematic fraud or misrepresentation in the process, but as a rule transparency is always a good thing. Equally, election systems more often than not develop along national trajectories and there is considerable resistance towards learning from the experiences in other systems. Just as there are questionable elements in the Danish process, there may be questionable elements in the Swedish – or conversely, there may be elements which are worth exporting or adapting in other countries.
So to conclude: All things considered, I don’t give much credence to the criticism raised by Ralf Pittelkow and other self-proclaimed experts on electoral systems. That is not to say that the Sweden Democrats are not the objects of exclusion mechanisms in media and other parts of the political sphere, but the main reason that the party hovers around the 4 percent threshold is most likely, that it has less appeal to the Swedish electorate at large than DF has to the Danish electorate. Sure, to SD winning 3.9 instead of 4.1 percent of the vote will make a big difference, but the same goes for 1.9 and 2.1 percent in Denmark.
For the record: I cast a vote in Swedish elections and referendums in 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2004. For a number of reasons I didn’t bother to vote in the 2006 local and regional elections.