The effect of new technologies on Swedish politics

By Per Persson (for Safe Democracy)

Per Persson analyzes the controversial use of blogging as a campaign tool in Sweden. He notes that some critics claim blogs give too much power to the politicians that use them, but dispels that notion using one Swedish politician’s successful blog as an example. He proposes that as long as the media continues to keep politicians in check, blogs can be used as tools for the strengthening of democracy.

Per Persson has a B.S. in Business Administration and Political Science from Lund University in Sweden. He is a former consultant at the Swedish Trade Council in Istanbul and Madrid.

IN THIS ERA OF GLOBALISATION AND TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE there are surprisingly few debates about how the new technology will transform the role of politicians vis a vis society, the media and the electorate. How will traditional ways of communication change, as internet and other technologies get more accessible to more people throughout the world, and what impact will this have on existing power structures? And in a long term perspective, could this pose a threat to democracy?

Carl Bildt, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs and a former diplomat at the UN, has a frequently visited and highly appreciated blog. Bildt writes about his everyday life as a high ranking politician, giving a unique insight into Swedish as well as global political life.

Then out of nowhere, in late February this year, Bertil Torekull, a party colleague of Bildt’s from Moderaterna (a conservative party in Sweden), and former chief editor at Svenska Dagbladet, one of the most prestigious newspapers in Sweden, wrote a much debated article comparing Bildt to Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez. What were the arguments for this incomprehensible comparison and how can they be related to democracy issues?

Torekull’s main points were that when reading Bildt’s blog, one could not differentiate the politician’s opinions as a private person from his opinions as a Minister. Furthermore, he claimed that sensitive information from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could be used by Bildt in his blog and that a Minister does not have the authority to decide if this information should be used publicly or not.

Finally, Torekull claimed that Bildt, by writing this blog read mainly by Bildt’s supporters, Bildt was not receiving enough media scrutiny and was therefore escaping the vital criticism of the media. That is what Torekull meant by democracy being at peril, that the power of media is being taken from media itself and being placed in the hands of a Minister, just as Hugo Chavez is doing in Venezuela.

I strongly disagree with all of Torekull’s arguments and his view on Mr Bildt’s blogging.

Bildt’s blog, which received one million hits in the month of April alone, serves several functions. Firstly, common people get an insight in how the country is ruled, how politicians work, thus making political life more tangible and transparent. Secondly, I think it is amazing that such a high ranking politician as Bildt has the will and commitment to communicate to his electorate in this direct kind of communication. Finally, as long as Bildt pays as much attention to media as he did before his blogging (Bildt is one of the most journalist-accessible ministers), I do not see a conflict with respect to being scrutinized by media.

So what lessons and learnings could be drawn from this debate and how can they be related to the questions I asked in the beginning?

Internet technology has transformed the world and media in a way that inevitably will have a huge impact on how people interact with each other. Blogging is just another channel for politicians to communicate directly with the public. Torekull, a former journalist, seems afraid of losing his power as the sole transmitter of news to society, hence his reaction to Bildt’s blog. Instead, let us hope more politicians have the will and the commitment to describe and debate their everyday life.

Blogging will transform our ways of communication, and this is just the beginning. But as long as it makes democracy more transparent, more accessible to everyday people, I cannot find one single argument why technology and blogging could pose a threat to democracy.

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