Speech by the Speaker Andreas Norlén at seminar on democracy held at the Belgian Federal Parliament February 5th
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Mr President of the Senate,
Distinguished Members of Parliament,
Mr Secretary General,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great honour for me to participate in this seminar, and to have the opportunity to elaborate on such a crucial topic.
Democracy may not be a perfect system, but it is the best system available, to paraphrase what Winston Churchill supposedly said. Therefore, it is our duty as politicians, researchers and civil servants to do our outmost to defend it when facing challenges and to develop it when facing changes. Thus, this seminar is about democracy and the challenges that exist, but also about the opportunities.
First, I would like to thank the Belgian Federal Parliament and the Standing Committee for Constitutional Review and Institutional Reform for kindly hosting this event, a very suitable location and a relevant host, indeed. Likewise, I would like to thank International IDEA and Secretary General Leterme for granting us your expertise today.
I believe this is an excellent opportunity to engage in a dialogue on democracy and the rule of law in a bilateral context. Some democratic features and challenges are more tangible in Belgium and others in Sweden, but on many occasions we need to address common challenges together. It is important to learn from each other´s experiences.
We´ve brought this factual backdrop from Sweden to serve as a metaphorical backdrop at this seminar. In Stockholm, we´ve just inaugurated a 3 1/2 years long celebration of one hundred years of Swedish democracy.
In 1918, the first decision was taken in the Parliament to introduce universal and equal suffrage. The reform was carried out following a long struggle and intensive advocacy efforts. This is being marked at the Swedish Parliament with several years of celebrations during which the advent of democracy will be commemorated in different ways.
We strongly believe that democracy is truly worth commemorating, celebrating and vitalising, also at an international level. Therefore, I intend to bring parts of this centenary celebration with me on travels, as we are doing today. You will also find a leaflet on the matter here; please let my staff provide you with a copy.
As the Speaker, I preside over many votings in the Chamber, but one of the most ground-breaking decisions was made centuries before I took office. When the Parliament in 1766 adopted the Freedom of the Press Act, Sweden became the first country ever to embody the right of free speech and writing as well as public access to official documents in legislation. These rights continue to constitute cornerstones in our democracy.
Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,
In Sweden, as you now understand, we do like to commemorate accomplishments in the past. But nevertheless, it is even more important to look forward – what is needed to be done and what can be done right now?
Democracy is not always easy. I´d probably go as far as to say that it´s never easy… but it remains just as important, and sometimes it just needs time. Let me give you an example. I had the, somewhat dubious, honour of being the first Speaker in Sweden to experience more than one hundred days of the process of forming a government. Sweden has now joined the very small percentage of European countries with such complex processes that they last for months. Luckily, as you are well aware - we are in good company!
During the 134 days that it took to form a government, I often had to answer questions and criticism: Why all this time? Why all those seemingly pointless negotiations and press conferences? My answer was, throughout the process, that I too saw the need for progress - but for the parties, anchoring decisions and fostering trust were also essential parts of the process. A process may be complicated but, at the end of the day, what really counts is the result. Something that can stand the test of time can also take time to form.
I would also like to emphasise that Sweden, despite this complex and lengthy process, continued to function passably well. During those months, we had a caretaker government with the mandate to act should a crisis occur, we had a parliament handling the budget bill and we had government agencies that kept on working.
Ladies and gentlemen,
One hundred years ago, Sweden was undergoing a transition. It was, of course, not comparable to the consequences of the war that you suffered but the upheavals brought change also to Sweden: an old world was lost, a new era emerged and the outline of today´s society was just becoming visible.
We found ourselves at a watershed. Harsh and hard negotiations on universal and equal suffrage developed between politicians, organisations, business representatives and even the King. Sweden was on the brink between a possible revolutionary path or peaceful reforms.
Often, when recflecting upon historical events, we tend to take the outcome as given. But the breakthrough of democracy was not, at any point during the process, something that could be taken for granted. Nor can democracy be taken for granted today.
One hundred years ago men and women in Sweden were struggling to gain equal civil rights. Today we face other questions but the key issue remains the same: who has the right to be heard or to exercise power? Women of the past struggled for the right to make their voices heard in elections while women of today are struggling to make their voices heard in the public debate without receiving hate and threats in return.
Another key issue is trust. One hundred years ago the establishment had to put its trust in the voters when giving them extended rights. Today the question is whether the voters have, or do not have, trust in the establishment.
Trust is truly a crucial component in society and it grows when people see society functioning, when they feel that they as individuals count and when they have knowledge. I see Swedish voters showing an interest and engagement in politics and the public debate. The process of forming a government also sparked an interest in issues such as division of powers between parliament and government, how the electoral system works and how the work of parliament is organised. This interest is something very positive, and we should do more to promote it.
At the same time, we can clearly see that values such as democracy, trust and engagement face both changes and challenges in Sweden, and I believe also in Belgium.
The interesting study, The Global State of Democracy, describes the complexity of the world, the political landscape and the state of democracy today. There are positive trends as well as negative threats. Today, I very much look forward to learning more about what could be called a crisis of representation.