Odd as it may sound to many noble representatives of the people elsewhere, Sweden does not offer luxury or privileges to its politicians. Without official cars or private drivers, Swedish ministers and members of parliament travel in crowded buses and trains, just like the citizens they represent. Without any right to parliamentary immunity, they can be tried like any other person. With no private secretaries at the door, their bare-bones parliamentary offices are as small as eight square metres.
“I’m the one who pays the politicians,” says Joakim Holm, a Swedish citizen. “And I see no reason to give them a life of luxury.”
Politicians who dare to spend public money on taxi journeys, instead of riding the train, end up on news headlines. Even the speaker of parliament receives a card to use public transportation. Only the prime minister has the right to use a car from the security forces on a permanent basis.
Swedish parliamentarians live in tiny apartments in the capital, where they wash and iron their own clothes in communal laundries. This may seem meagre for such eminent people, but it actually is much better than it used to be. Up until the end of the 1980s, all parliamentarians slept on sofa beds, in their own offices.
No one in public life earns an obscene multiple-digit salary: the take-home pay of a member of the Riksdag (Swedish parliament) is approximately two times more than what an elementary school teacher earns on average.
At the municipal level, any desire to work in politics could be seen, outside of Sweden, as a case for requiring psychological assessment: after all, Swedish councillors do not even earn a salary, nor do they have the right to an office — they work from home. Are they out of their minds?
Sweden’s experience subverts the unhinged concept that politicians should be accorded reverential treatment worthy of a higher group of beings, comprising ladies and gentlemen who are more illustrious than the average citizen and therefore deserving of an almost divine right to benefits and privileges which those living below the political Olympus could never attain.
This is a nation that treats its government officials and political representatives as ordinary citizens. A country without ‘Excellencies’ and other formal titles of address. A society that abolished the use of formal pronouns in the 1960s, and where everyone is simply called ‘you’. Because, according to the Swedish system of values, nobody is above anybody else. Not even politicians, who should live in conditions similar to the reality of the people who elect them.
I still remember the strange feeling of witnessing an extra-terrestrial phenomenon when I saw the then Swedish minister of foreign affairs and former Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt, pushing a shopping trolley in a supermarket in Stockholm. Or the mayor of Stockholm standing in a queue at a bus stop. Or the speaker of the parliament sitting in an underground train.
Free from major social imbalances, Sweden is undoubtedly a safer and less violent country, where politicians and citizens alike do not usually need to travel in bullet-proof cars. But more importantly, this is a society that elects politicians who must be in touch with the day-to-day realities and pains of ordinary citizens. Politicians are not allowed to place their personal interests ahead of those of the people in a society that demonstrates that political power can be exercised within the boundaries of decency.
In the Justice system, the logic is the same: no Swedish judge has the right to official cars, private secretaries or perks – not even at the Supreme Court of Sweden.
Those in authority must be held accountable, and all information must be freely available to the public. Swedish openness is reflected in the very transparency of the political power, which is monitored by means of the oldest transparency law in the world — a law that makes political corruption at national level a relatively rare phenomenon in the country.
In 1766, public access to official government documents became a constitutional right for all citizens, enshrined in a special chapter of the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act.
In Sweden it’s possible to trace the expenditure of ministers, representatives, and judges; to read the prime minister’s income tax declaration; to check the expenses of the national police commissioner or the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces; to keep abreast with how public agencies are spending tax money, and to monitor the actions, motions, and official decisions made by any of the kingdom’s authorities.
One of the most emblematic political scandals of the country took place in the 1990s. Deputy prime minister Mona Sahlin bought a bar of chocolate, baby nappies and some other personal items with a government credit card, and paid dearly for it: she lost her job. The scandal went down in the annals of Swedish politics as the Toblerone Case.
In little over 100 years, Sweden has transformed itself from an impoverished, agricultural society into one of the wealthiest, most socially just and least corrupt countries in the world, where nobody is above anybody else. The Swedish experience demonstrates perhaps more than any other how change is possible.
Claudia Wallin is a Brazilian journalist and author based in Sweden since 2003. Before moving to Stockholm, she worked for ten years in London as the bureau chief of TV Globo in Europe, a director at International Herald Tribune TV and a producer at BBC World Service, for whom she still contributes as a permanent stringer correspondent. Her book, Sweden – The Untold Story, is about the modest lives of Swedish politicians.