Local democracy requires brave decision-makers

Every period faces challenges to democracy that must be faced. Threats and internet hate, for example, are serious problems for democracy in municipalities. Even so, local politics functions well, all things considered. 

Anonymous woman votes. Voting is of course important, but true democracy takes more than that. andriano_cz

Special interests

This is the conclusion of researchers Johan Wänström and Gissur Erlingsson from the Centre for Local Government Studies, CKS, at Linköping University.

Johan Wänström.Johan Wänström. Photo credit Anna Valentinsson/Linköpings universitet

“People do not identify so strongly with a particular political party today. Folk tend to get involved in other ways and in well-defined issues, such as the climate and environment, or protesting against the closure of a school where they live. But someone must take responsibility for the complete picture, and weigh one policy against another.

It’s not easy to unite all special interests in an entirety.

"This means that it is a serious challenge for local democracy to get hold of local politicians who are prepared to take the responsibility”, says Johan Wänström.

Hate and threats

The chair of the municipal board plays a central role in municipal decision-making. A recent investigation by the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR) showed that approximately 40% have been the target of hate, threats or violence during the past three years. The consequence is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get hold of people who are prepared to take positions of political responsibility in the municipalities”, says Johan Wänström.

“Difficult decisions must be taken when running a municipality. And it certainly doesn’t become easier when you risk becoming the target of threats and spitefulness.”

Social media are a major problem in this context.

“But digital platforms also have many advantages. It is, however, important to create a respectful climate for debate if we are to get hold of people willing to get involved. This is a large and central question for local democracy”, Johan Wänström emphasises.

Not hopeless

Gissur Erlingsson agrees. He describes another investigation from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) from 2018, which showed that 30% of all those in positions of trust in municipalities had been exposed to threats or harassment.

Gissur Erlingsson. Gissur Erlingsson. Photo credit ANNA VALENTINSSON

“This can only be described as a serious threat to democracy. People are scared about standing for election, and existing politicians consider stepping down. Furthermore, there’s a risk that they exercise self-censorship in sensitive questions”, says Gissur Erlingsson.

He sees several possible ways to deal with the problem of threats, and points out that the current situation must not be considered hopeless.

“First of all, the legal changes that have been made are positive, with stricter punishments for threatening those in positions of trust. And then the municipalities can do much more themselves to prevent threats and harassment, and support those who are targeted.”

Many step down

Gissur Erlingsson has also studied how local politicians leave their positions. During the parliamentary period 2014-2018, a record number of local politicians stepped down: 22%. Women and younger people are significantly over-represented among the ones who leave.

“The decision to leave is most often for personal reasons, such as difficulties getting everyday life to work smoothly. One solution would be for municipalities to provide childcare support during meetings, and to arrange meetings at times that suit women and young people. And the Covid pandemic has shown that it is perfectly possible to hold meetings using remote methods”, says Gissur Erlingsson.

He has also studied the membership figures of political parties. The number of members is now less than half of what it was in 1991. At first sight this may appear as a major problem for democracy, but Gissur Erlingsson suggests that there is no reason to be overly anxious about this development.

“In most municipalities, there are still sufficiently many party members to compete for the elected positions, even if in some places in Sweden there have been problems finding enough people. Compared with figures from the 1960s, the same fraction of the population is willing to fill a post today as back then. And there are clear research results showing that local politicians in Sweden are extremely competent.”

Another theme of Gissur Erlingsson’s research looks at questions of accountability and the opportunities of citizens to gain insight into how municipal decisions are taken.

Municipal companies

“During the past 20 years, decision-making has been increasingly transferred to more anonymous arenas, such as municipal companies, joint boards and local federations. Together with the fact that the local media no longer have the capacity for critical political reporting, this is clearly a worrying development. This is why I believe that it would be useful to start a constructive discussion about greater accountability in municipal politics, such that people know who takes the decisions and where”, says Gissur Erlingsson.

The two researchers see that attitudes are becoming more pragmatic in many municipalities. Johan Wänström has studied this development in recent years.

“The trend is clear in small and medium-sized municipalities. It’s difficult to find a traditional left-right scale in local politics. Practical matters are more important than ideology. Parties to the left and right of centre, for example, find it easy to agree on joint solutions”, he says.

Despite the problems facing local politics today, the two researchers say that large parts of democracy function well.

“Some aspects are positive, but challenges must be faced. This is the way it’s always been, throughout society”, Johan Wänström sums up.

Translated by George Farrants

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