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SWEDEN ELECTS

Sweden Elects: What happens next as parliament reopens

The Local's editor Emma Löfgren explains the key events to keep an eye on in Swedish politics this week.

Sweden Elects: What happens next as parliament reopens
Swedish government negotiations are still ongoing, but parliament will soon be back in session. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Hej,

The newly-elected members of Sweden’s parliament will gather for the first time for a roll call at 11am today. Afterwards, they will re-elect Moderate politician Andreas Norlén as speaker of parliament. So who is he and why is the role of the speaker so crucial in Swedish politics?

The Local explains in this article, but in short:

The speaker is the highest elected office in Sweden, ranked below the head of state (King Carl XVI Gustaf) but above the prime minister. He or she has three main duties: representing the Swedish parliament, presiding over meetings in the main chamber and choosing the next prime minister.

But wait, didn’t Sweden just elect a new prime minister? Well, no. Sweden elected members of parliament, and then it is up to the speaker to decide which party leader has the best shot at gathering enough support to be able to form a government. This task has been given to Ulf Kristersson, leader of the conservative Moderates, whose bloc won the election.

The post of speaker has been held by Andreas Norlén for the past four years. He was an MP for the Moderates, but just like in the UK, but unlike the US, the speaker of parliament is a non-partisan role and once elected he’s supposed to leave behind his political sympathies and be neutral.

Norlén, who presided over the infamous 134 days of regeringsbildning (“government formation”) following the 2018 election, is quite well liked in Sweden. His dare-I-say extremely geeky and in-depth knowledge of Swedish legislative history and penchant for reciting poetry has awarded him unexpected cult status, and the Swedish newspapers enjoy reporting on what kind of fika he serves at his meetings with party leaders when it’s time to negotiate a new government (this year: homegrown tomatoes).

The Moderates have previously always insisted that the largest party of the winning bloc should get to nominate the speaker, so there was initial concern that Sweden could end up with a representative of the far-right Sweden Democrats holding the second highest-ranking job in the land.

But in their government negotiations, the right-wing parties agreed to re-nominate Norlén, who is expected to be voted back in without any problems today, including by the left bloc (among whom he also enjoys a lot of respect, plus there’s been a sense of better the devil you know).

Three deputy speakers will also be voted in today. The Social Democrats are expected to get the post as first deputy speaker, also without problems. The second deputy speaker, however, could be a tough fight. The right-wing bloc has nominated Sweden Democrat MP Julia Kronlid, who has been criticised by the left bloc for her strict views on abortion and scepticism of evolutionary theory. There may be a few liberal members of the right bloc who would rather not vote for her, and as the speaker vote is anonymous it means they don’t have to stick to the party line.

We’ll find out more later today.

Then tomorrow, parliament opens. The ceremony is set to start at 2pm, when King Carl XVI Gustaf will declare parliament back in session.

British readers may wonder if the King’s speech is similar to the Queen’s (or henceforth the King’s) speech at the state opening of their parliament, where the royal spells out the government’s agenda for the coming year.

The short answer is it’s nothing like that. The King of Sweden holds even less political power and his speech on the opening day is usually short with good wishes for the members of parliament. Also, he tends to wear a fairly ordinary and business-like suit, rather than the full royal regalia.

There will also be music. Swedish soprano Susanna Stern is set to perform, as is the girls’ choir from Adolf Fredrik’s school of music.

You can follow the opening of parliament live here. The ceremony is in Swedish, but it will be interpreted into English and sign language.

If Sweden already had a new government, the prime minister would also give a speech, setting out their agenda for the parliamentary year.

Speaking of which, when will Sweden get a new government? Not in time for the opening of parliament at any rate (outgoing Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson is in charge of a caretaker government until a new one has been chosen). Last I heard, the speaker, Norlén, expected the process to take another couple of weeks, although not as long as in 2018.

In other parliamentary news, the Moderates’ loss of their status as Sweden’s second-largest party means that they no longer get to have their meetings in the first chamber (the room that was used by first chamber MPs decades ago when the Swedish parliament had two chambers – the Social Democrats use the larger second chamber), which now belongs to the Sweden Democrats. Relatively unimportant, but probably stings.

Me, I’ve just started watching Herr Talman (“Mr Speaker”) – a political satire featuring Swedish politicians as puppets. Seeing Ulf Kristersson on the knee of Jimmie Åkesson as Santa Claus the week before last has scarred me for life, so thanks to public broadcaster SVT for that.

Next week, we should have a clearer idea of the timeframe for when Sweden might get a new government and what it will look like.

Until then, best wishes,

Emma

Sweden Elects is a weekly column by Editor Emma Löfgren looking at the big talking points and issues in the Swedish election race. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive the column as a newsletter in their email inbox each week. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.

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CRIME

EXPLAINED: What Sweden’s controversial new espionage law means

Sweden's new law against foreign espionage will alter passages in Sweden's constitutional laws governing freedom of the press and freedom of expression. The Local spoke to Mikael Ruotsi, senior lecturer in constitutional law at Uppsala University, about the new law.

EXPLAINED: What Sweden’s controversial new espionage law means

What was wrong with the previous law?

Sweden’s previous espionage law only covered Sweden’s national security, while the new law expands this to cover information that could harm Sweden’s relations with other countries or international organisations. Ruotsi said that Sweden’s last government, together with the then opposition parties, had felt that Sweden’s current spy law was too narrowly drawn, and also was less extensive than those of many of the country’s international partners.  

“What it aims to do is to encompass situations, for instance, where Swedish Armed Forces are working within UN peacekeeping operations, and classified information is divulged, which might harm the peacekeeping operation or other participating countries’ national interests, but not Swedish national interest,” Ruotsi said.

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Under Sweden’s existing laws, leaking information in this sort of scenario might be considered “divulging classified information”, but that he said is only a relatively minor crime.

Under the new law, it will become a more serious offence, with a maximum prison sentence of eight years for “aggravated foreign espionage” and four years for “foreign espionage”. 

Ruotsi said that the law had been in preparation for six to seven years and had nothing to do with either Sweden joining Nato, or with the decision by the Swedish diplomat Anders Kompass to blow the whistle in 2014 about a report into child sexual abuse carried out by French Peacekeepers in the Central African Republic between December 2013 and July 2014. 

Kompass was then field operations director at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and is now ambassador to Guatemala. 

“We can be fairly sure that this has nothing to do with the Anders Kompass situation,” Ruotsi said “I think it’s more of a reaction to Sweden being more involved at the international level in UN missions and things like that, and that there is increased international involvement with the Swedish Armed Forces.” 

How does the new law change the constitution?

Rather than a single written constitution, Sweden has four constitutional laws. The new law changes two of them: the Freedom of the Press Act and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression, so that sharing secret information that damages Sweden’s relations with another country is illegal.

In order to criminalise an act of speech – for example, divulging national security secrets – that change in the criminal law needs to be mirrored in a change to the constitutional Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression. 

Similarly, in order to criminalise the disclosure of information obtained through espionage, changes need to be made to the constitutional Freedom of the Press Act. 

“They are basically just mirrors of the criminal code, so if you want to make something criminal to say in a newspaper or on TV, then you have to criminalise it both in the criminal act and in those two constitutional media laws,” Ruotsi explains.

Is it concerning that the constitution is being changed?

Ruotsi said that because changing the Swedish constitutional laws requires a vote either side of an election, the four constitutional laws tend to undergo significant changes after every general election.

“They have a specific, very detailed nature, and they need to be kept up to date,” he said of Sweden’s constitutional law. “So there are changes every four years, but it’s not very common that you introduce a new crime or a new criminal sanction.”

Are there any good reasons to be worried about the new law?

One concern around the changes to the constitution is that they may make sources less willing to speak to the media or to pass information about critical matters on to journalists.

While the preparatory work for the new law does include provisions for the sharing of information that is of value to the public, for sources with sensitive information about Sweden’s dealings with other countries, the fear of what Ruotsi calls “criminal sanctions” may compromise their willingness to speak with journalists and with the press.

The law includes what Ruotsi calls a “public interest override” that states that publications or leaks that are “defensible” should not be prosecuted under the law. 

Even though he concedes this is “phrased a lot more vaguely” in the Swedish law than it could be, he argues that the preparatory work for the law makes it clear that this is intended to protect whistleblowers and investigative journalism.

“If you look at the preparatory works, it’s quite clear that they mean to exclude from criminal responsibility things that are of value to the public and in particular the media,” he said. 

“It’s somewhat unclear how this new law will be interpreted, but it’s obvious that the purpose of the law is not to criminalise the Anders Kompass situation, it’s to make sure that if we have Swedish military personnel or other civil servants working abroad on international missions and they turn out to be spies, that we can sanction them. That’s the main idea.”

By Shandana Mufti and Richard Orange

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