Opinion: Every country needs an Almedalen Week

Sweden's annual political festival could bring huge benefits to democracy if it were transported abroad, writes Erik Zsiga, director of communications consultancy Kekst CNC.

Opinion: Every country needs an Almedalen Week
People arriving to the festival's first day. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

This week, the epicenter of Swedish politics and business temporarily moved from Stockholm to Visby, on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Taking place in July every year, the Almedalen Week attracts some 45,000 visitors to the old Hanseatic town, who attend workshops, speeches, debates and receptions in pop-up locations like shops, gardens and warehouses.

It all started 51 years ago when future Prime Minister Olof Palme gave a speech en route to his summer holiday. The other parties soon followed, but for many years it was an event stretching over one or a few days attracting only professional politicians. Journalists came along to report upon what they discussed.

Around the millennium, NGOs and lobbying groups started to come. Companies then saw the opportunity to meet with a range of their stakeholder groups. With social media added to the mix by the 2010s, the week had evolved into its present format – a combination of politics and business, professionalism and party.

One could argue that the Almedalen Week is very Swedish in its forms – equal, consensus driven and based on dialogue. But it is also informal and intimate. And most important, focused on contributing to democracy.

This has drawn some international interest through the years. Foreign delegations have visited to see what goes on, and some countries have created similar venues.

READ ALSO: Malmedalen: New political festival launched in troubled Swedish suburb

Crowds listen to opposition leader Ulf Kristersson during Almedalen week. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

But there could be more. In these times of misconceptions towards the elites, the rural-urban divide and higher tensions in the public debate, an Almedalen Week would be healthy for every Western democracy. The recent political development has proven the need for inclusiveness, established political movements to renew and the public dialogue to be reinstated.

Sweden is by all means no exception to these developments, but the impact is probably less due to Almedalen Week. In several ways, it benefits Swedish politics and business.

For one thing, it gives anyone access to politicians and business leaders. The week could be described as a national mini-Davos Conference, but then again not quite. An almost complete “Who’s who?” of Swedish politics, business, administration and journalism gets on to planes and ferries to go there. But they are not alone. A broad layer of grass-root activists from even the most niche of NGO’s attend the week as well. So do citizens with no affiliation but just an interest in a specific question or society in general.

The seminars are free of charge and open to anyone, and there is no requirement to sign up in advance or get accreditation. In the medieval streets and tight restaurant terraces, these grassroots activists are back-to-back with government ministers and top CEOs. The culture is open-minded, allowing anyone to ask a question or express an opinion.

The discussions develop policies and advance the public debate. With several thousand programme items, it may not come as a surprise that most policy fields, public issues and societal challenges are covered. The seminars are opportunities for the main stakeholders in all fields of Swedish society to meet, and focus on idea creation in a way that is not possible in the daily life.

READ ALSO: Yes, Sweden's Almedalen is still relevant in the digital age

A parade organized during Almedalen to celebrate diversity and tolerance. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

It leads to unexpected meetings and cooperation. The mix of spheres and an open mindset is a terrific environment for unexpected meetings across dividing lines and conventional groupings. It is not only civil society and citizens getting access to politicians and business leaders, it is the other way round as well.

It is a platform for knowledge sharing. Most of the seminars bring more than just one speaker to the stage. Having five panelists or more is not unusual. This means that some 20,000-30,000 expert perspectives and insights are added to the discussion during the week, educating leaders about fields they may know little or nothing about, or about fields they work with already or simply can just get inspired by. It is a marvellous knowledge-sharing exercise, and its effect on Swedish decision making should not be underestimated.

It helps leaders make better strategic decisions. In a time with disruptive technologies, climate challenge and other mega-trends reshaping business, environments like this are crucial.

That's why this could be the next innovative export product from Sweden. An Isle of Wight Week in the UK or Rügen Week in Germany will not be full solutions to the crisis of democracy, but they could be a part of it.

Erik Zsiga is director at Kekst CNC in Sweden, former Press Secretary and Spokesperson to Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Global Head of Media Relations at Electrolux.

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Can residents in Sweden vote in this summer’s EU elections?

The year 2024 is a bumper one for elections, among them the European elections which are scheduled for June. Sweden is of course a member of the EU – so can foreign residents vote in the elections that will almost certainly affect their daily lives?

Can residents in Sweden vote in this summer's EU elections?

Across Europe, people will go to the polls in early June to select their representatives in the European Parliament, with 21 seats up for grabs in Sweden. 

European elections usually see a much lower turnout than national elections: in 2019 only 55 percent of those eligible voted, compared to 84 percent in the 2022 national election. 

But the elections can still be important in Swedish domestic politics, allowing voters to show their dissatisfaction with the sitting government, bringing momentum to parties and party leaders who do well, and allowing new parties, like in the past the Pirate Party or the Feminist Initiative, to achieve real political power.  

When to vote

In Sweden, the election will be held on June 9th, but you can vote in advance (förtidsrösta) from May 22nd.

Each municipality will typically set up one or more special voting places, often in a public library, where you can go and vote early if you have already decided which party you want to vote for, or are worried you will not be able to find time on election day. 

Those eligible to vote who are outside Sweden on election day, can send a postal vote from April 25th.

They can also vote at an overseas voting station, which are normally found at Swedish embassies, from May 16th.  

Who can vote? 

Swedish citizens who are over the age of 18 on election day – including dual nationals – can vote in European elections, even if they don’t live in Sweden. They must, however, have been registered as living in Sweden at some time in the past. 

Non-Swedish citizens who are living in Sweden can only vote if they have citizenship of an EU country. So for example Irish, French or German citizens living in Sweden can vote in European elections but Americans, Indians, Australians and so on cannot.

This is different from local and regional elections in Sweden, for which being a resident for three years in the municipality or region is enough to be eligible.

Brits in Sweden used to be able to vote before Brexit, but now cannot. 

If you are an EU citizen registered as living in Sweden, you should probably have already received a letter from the Swedish Election Authority (Valmyndigheten), asking to you apply to be included or excluded from the Swedish election register for the EU election.

The letter should include a form which you need to send in to the regional government where you live. Under EU rules, you are only vote in one country’s EU election.

How does the election work?

The system for European elections differs from most countries’ domestic polls.

MEPs are elected once every five years. Each country is given an allocation of MEPs roughly based on population size.

At present there are 705 MEPs. Germany – the country in the bloc with the largest population – has the most while the smallest number belong to Malta with just six.

Sweden elects its MEPs through direct proportional representation via the “list” system, so that parties gain the number of MEPs equivalent to their share of the overall vote. MEPs do not represent a particular region. 

So for example if the Social Democrats win 35 percent of the overall vote they will get 7 of the total of 21 MEPs. Exactly who gets to be an MEP is decided in advance by the parties who publish their candidate lists in priority order.

So let’s say that the Social Democrats do get 35 percent of the vote – then the people named from 1 to 7 on their list get to be MEPs, and the people lower down on the list do not.

In the run-up to the election, the parties decide on who will be toppkandidater (candidates heading the list) and these people will almost certainly be elected.

Once in parliament, parties usually seek to maximise their influence by joining one of the “blocks” made up of parties from neighbouring countries that broadly share their interests and values eg centre-left, far-right, green.

The parliament alternates between Strasbourg and Brussels.