Sweden’s choice

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A week before the elections in my native Sweden I met up with an old friend in Kungsträdgården in central Stockholm. As we had not met for 23 years we had a bit to catch up on.

We quickly returned to the open and frank discussions of yesteryears like we had met just a few weeks ago. We discussed feminism (his oldest daughter who is 25 considered herself a feminist), equality in Swedish society and the upcoming elections. As we sipped our diet Pepsi’s (both of us are now at an age where calorie intake is considered) and cappuccinos at a cafe lit by the late summer sun. A few hours into the conversation Swedish rap music from the large stage in the center of the park drowned out parts of our conversation. What was once the mainstream blue-collar workers party that had ruled Sweden from the Second World War until the oil crisis in the seventies Socialdemokraterna (the Social democrats) had gone from waving red flags at the May Day parade (May 1 is Labor Day in Europe) and singing the “L’Internationale” to rap music. The crowd numbered in the hundreds as a video showed the life journey of the current party leader Stefan Löfven from being a foster child to the predicted Prime Minister to be. As Mr. Löfven entered the stage he was cheered on by the few hundreds in the crowd before he was subjected to a short Q and A by the presenter. The crowd had not grown much and their cheers where muted. Neither I nor my friend was paying close attention to the words as he would not say anything beyond the previous evenings TV debate. This year’s slogan “a better Sweden for all” sounded all too familiar and is all about solidarity and welfare. After eight years of center right politics the center/green/left lead in the opinion polls with about 10% but will lack an outright majority.

As our cups were empty we crossed Hamngatan and noted a fairly strong police presence. We asked the officers in one of the vans what was up. The animal rights party is marching one said, the general election jitters another chimed in. Once my friend headed home I strolled along Kungsgatan towards Hötorget. Halfway up the street I turned right and climbed the stairs to Malmskillnadsgatan a street synonymous in the 70ies for street prostitution followed by political scandals. After two blocks I turned left and took the terraced stairs down Tunnelgatan towards Sveavägen. This path had been walked many times over the years by police officers and journalists trying to figure out the solution to one of the biggest mysteries in Swedish politics. As I reached Sveavägen a mesh fence occupied most of the sidewalk where I was looking for a sign recognizing the significance of the place.

The large home decoration store on the corner was gone to be replaced by yet another upscale shopping mall. This generally generic street corner with an entrance to the subway became the center of the world’s attention in the late evening of 28 February 1986 when a middle-aged couple who had just left a movie theatre walked towards their home in Old Town. A man approached from behind perhaps he had been following the couple for a while. He got really close and pressed a 357 Magnum revolver against the back of the man. He pulled the trigger ….. twice. The first shot killed the man instantly, the second braised his wives back and she survived. The bronze plaque placed in the sidewalk read “At this place Sweden’s Prime Minister Olof Palme was murdered 28 February 1986”. The crime sent shock waves throughout Sweden and across the globe. Palme had been a polarizing figure on the world stage by visiting Fidel Castro, trying to mediate between Iran and Iraq and then there was the Bofors scandal with bribe allegations in India. The theories are many, the PKK trail, the rightwing police conspiracy, the lone nut. A man was arrested convicted, freed and finally the Supreme Court threw the case out. To date the murder remains unresolved. As I stopped to look at the somewhat soiled plaque I recalled crossing Sveavägen a few hundred meters away that night in 1986. I was struck by the number of sirens and blue lights down the street but as I was tired continued toward the central station and the train back to the suburbs. As I felt something was up I turned on the radian once home and the news was out. The Prime Minister had been killed. The front page of DN (Daily News) the morning after proclaimed “Palme murdered” in the bold letters. As I stood there a teenage school class swiftly wondered by and did not appear giving it a second thought. It felt odd and so distant. Moving on towards Sergels torg I passed the “non-violence” statue by Carl Fredrick Reuterswärd which depicts just a 357 Magnum with the barrel turned into a knot. A poignant reminder.

On the recessed Sergels Torg a small stage on which a youthful duo entertained with music. Some dozens of fans faced the stage with different anti-fur (mink farming) messages. Mink farming has been a hot topic in Sweden for some time and on the prohibition agenda of the Animal rights activists who held this rally. That they rallied on a square completely void of anything green seemed odd.

A 10 minute walk down Hamngatan the sentiments were very different and the rhetoric stronger. On Norrmalmstorg bordering the more affluent parts of Stockholm the youth organization of the Swedish Democrats (SDU) used a PA system to spread their word. It was here in a former bank now home to the fashion house ACNE Studios flagship store the verbiage “the Stockholm syndrome” was coined. The syndrome refers to the psychological phenomena that victims bestow sympathy or empathy on their captors possibly to avoid fear or violence against them. The young blond man speaking was dressed like an Ivy League preppy khaki jeans and a dark blue blazer. He hammered away at the diminishing welfare of Sweden and Swedes squarely placing the blame on the open door immigration policies of the current and past governments. The rhetoric has had effect and the party is polling at about 10% in the opinion polls which makes them the third largest party. The speaker was surrounded by a semicircle of supporters some holding yellow flags of the SDU. A few of the party functionaries in white jackets with the blue cornflower as their symbol were looking outward on the opposing crowd separated from the rally by a cordon of police officers. The numbers in the dozens on each of the opposing sides. The SDU supporters varied in ages from those of the speakers (20 something’s) to retirees. The anti SDU crowd was more youthfully homogeneous in age but varied in ethnicity. As one speaker gave way to the likewise khaki pants and blue blazer clad head of the youth organization the jeers and boohs from the anti-crowd intensified. The SDU PA system amplified the clear anti-immigration message whilst mostly “preaching to the converted”. Stop and reverse immigration, stop the subsidy tourism and all the freebies to those arriving in the country from war torn parts of the world. Follow the example of Denmark and Finland who have much more restrictive immigration policies.  It was about one issue and one issue only, the one of immigration which many deem bordering on racism. The supporters closed rank around the speakers and was also surrounded by police with focus of keeping a counter demonstration at bay. With their backs to the SDU crowd an almost as large group with their middle fingers raised jeered, sneered, whistled and let out a few “Nazi swine’s” before being quieted by the police. Not so that the police sympathized but the SDU had permission to hold their rally and that is entrenched in the freedom of speech.

Leaving the nationalists and their antagonists behind it was time to see what happened around democracy central where decisions are made and the politics implemented – the parliament.

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