Visby, Sweden –This medieval town has become a sprawling battlefield. Everyone who wants to join in the Swedish political debate is here, fighting to get the attention of the hundreds of politicians and journalists who have flocked to the island of Gotland for the annual Almedalen Week, a political festival attended by officials from every party.
The cobblestone streets are lined with organisations ranging from teachers’ unions to environmental lobbies, all handing out flyers and trying to lure passersby into their tents to have a chat or at least grab some candy.
With elections coming up in September, this year’s event might become the busiest political week ever for the country.
All 24 ministers of the centre-right government are taking part, as well as a majority of the country’s 349 parliamentarians. Hundreds of journalists covering the event frolic with politicians in the many cocktail parties organised on terraces across the picturesque holiday town.
Mats Knutsson, a reporter with Swedish public broadcaster SVT, has attended almost every political week since 1991. He thinks the proximity to politicians and the leisurely atmosphere make Almedalen unique.
“You run into people you didn’t expect to meet – in the hotel lobby, in the street, in seminars, in restaurants,” he said. “Elsewhere, with increasing security measures, it’s becoming more and more difficult for ordinary people to meet politicians. But here, in these narrow streets, ministers can’t go by car, they walk like everyone else.”
A total of 25,000 people are expected to visit Visby, normally home to about 23,000 people and with a town centre surrounded by a UNESCO-listed city wall.
Hotel rooms have been booked up to two years in advance and empty schools have been transformed into dormitories. A cruise ship anchored in the harbour accommodates guests as well. Taxi companies have brought in extra staff and cars from mainland Sweden to cope with the masses while nearly every rental car – and even most bicycles – are booked.
‘A democratic meeting place, open for all’
Gustav Fridolin, one of two party leaders of the Green Party, is taking part in 21 different events.
He describes Almedalen as a “democratic meeting place, open for all”.
“It’s also a place where issues that normally don’t get attention, that are not promoted by cash-rich players, appear on the agenda,” he told Al Jazeera after participating in a debate on school policy.
“Grassroot movements are here and either with smart tricks or by being many, they manage to get attention and contact with politicians.”
Almedalen is a democratic show of force... It kind of serves as a prelude to the election campaign.
The history of the Almedalen Week goes back to 1968, when then-Education Minister and Social Democrat leader Olof Palme gave a speech from a truck platform next to the Almedalen park. His summer speech became a yearly tradition, and other party leaders later joined in.
Palme was murdered in 1986, but his widow, Lisbeth Palme, sat in the front row as current party leader Stefan Lofven delivered a speech on Sunday, pledging to invest in preschool education and to tackle unemployment should he get elected as prime minister.
“Almedalen is a democratic show of force,” he told Al Jazeera during his party’s crowded mingle party, hosted in a medieval church ruin. “It’s also a chance for our party to show what we want. It kind of serves as a prelude to the election campaign.”
Opinion polls suggest that the centre-left opposition could return to power, unseating the centre-right coalition that has ruled the country since 2006.
Speeches by party leaders remain the focus of the Almedalen Week, but the programme has expanded exponentially in recent years. This year’s official programme lists more than 3,000 seminars, public hearings of politicians, debates and other events.
In a tent near the harbour, a band of musicians with disabilities perform a cover of Creedence Clearwater’s Rolling on the River called “Rolling with my Wheelchair”.
“Disabled are part of society and our future. They want to be active citizens, with freedoms just as others. This is what we want to show to decision makers,” said Cecilia Black of the non-profit organisation Jamlikhet Assistans Gemenskap (Equality, Assistance and Inclusion).
Once the seminars finish for the day, the bars of Visby fill up, and Almedalen’s favoured drink, rose wine, begins to flow.
The most anticipated party of the week pits the ruling coalition against the opposition in a “DJ Battle”. Last year saw the minister of financial markets dance on the DJ deck while he played his favourite tunes together with the minister of development aid.
Amid non-stop activities and political noise, attention-seeking politicians and lobbyists have yet to outperform what analysts unanimously list as the most successful Almedalen PR stunt ever: burning $15,000 to highlight the salary gap between men and women.
In 2010, Gudrun Schyman, a long-time leftist who cofounded the Feminist Initiative party, poured handfuls of bills on a smoking grill as photographers and TV teams jostled to get pictures.
“Never before had so many people talked about the salary gap,” a smiling Schyman told Al Jazeera in Almedalen, looking back at the outcome of the barbecue.
After winning seats in the European Parliament on a platform of feminism and anti-racism, members of the Feminist Initiative express hope that they will pass the four-percent threshold needed to enter parliament this year.
The far-right’s presence
Both gender equality and the rise of the far-right have become hot topics in the Swedish political debate. The far-right Sweden Democrats, who entered parliament in 2010, are present in Visby as something of a black sheep.
Also present but not part of the official programme is a fringe party even further to the right, the Nazi-labelled Party of the Swedes. To the dismay of many politicians and Gotland residents, the leader of the party was granted permission to give a speech in Almedalen on the eve of the political week.
The whole thing is a PR circus.
As the party leader claimed to be “unofficially inaugurating” the week and called for an immediate end to all immigration, a few hundred protesters gathered in the park to shout down his speech, chanting “Nazi Swines” and jingling keys. The churches in Visby protested as well, chiming church bells to warn of “imminent danger”, a measure not taken since World War II.
Several groups planned seminars on the theme of diversity and multiculturalism on Tuesday, the day when the Sweden Democrats’ leader is due to deliver his address. Also on the day’s programme, competing for an audience, are seminars on dental health, wind power, Ukraine, and many other topics.
But not everyone in Visby is gripped by political fever. Taxi driver Peter Jakobsson says that even if he had not been busy with work, he would not have attended any Almedalen events.
“It’s hard to see how this is meaningful,” he said. “One wonders if this is what taxpayers’ money should be spent on – politicians taking taxis, going to luxurious restaurants… The whole thing is a PR circus.”