Minister for Culture Parisa Liljestrand’s speech at the opening of Almedalen Week 2023
Published 28 June 2023
Visby, 27 June 2023
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Thank you for the invitation to come here and kick off this week of democracy, which I hope will be full of important meetings, respectful debates and interesting conversations.
It’s difficult to reflect on last year’s Almedalen Week without thinking about the tragic murder of Ing-Marie Wieselgren. I’d like to start by addressing Lovisa and Lars. Thank you for the great work you’re doing in Ing-Marie’s spirit, and thank you for constructively channelling your grief to do good. That requires both courage and strength.
For me, Almedalen Week is a symbol of one of the most beautiful aspects of Swedish democracy. We meet here – all of us who build society in our various roles. Decision-makers and those affected by the decisions. The distances between people here are short, both literally and figuratively. Conversations and meetings that are difficult to arrange in everyday life take place spontaneously on the streets of Visby, while we also enjoy the sun, the roses and the views.
This is impossible in many countries, where the walls around politics are significantly higher and more closed than Visby’s ring wall. But Swedish democracy is open, accessible and for the people. It must continue to be this way.
Last year’s tragedy is a reminder of the dark side of being in the public debate. Certain professions with particularly important functions in democracy are more vulnerable than others. Elected representatives and politicians. Journalists and media representatives. Researchers and representatives of public authorities and civil society. Artists and emergency services staff. Many people are witnessing a harsher tone, hate and direct threats. Many of them are women.
Nearly one third of journalists in Sweden state that they have refrained from reporting on an issue to avoid being subjected to threats and hate. In politics, we see how representatives choose to leave their posts because it’s not worth the sacrifice of having to endure taunts and name-calling. When anonymous threats on the internet are translated into actions on our streets and in our squares – that’s when democracy faces a serious challenge. Security has become the great issue of freedom of our time.
I’ve been asked to hold this inauguration speech on the theme ‘All voices must dare to be heard’. And I can assure you all that this issue is absolutely crucial for the Government. No one should refrain from doing their part in a democracy out of fear for their own or their children’s safety or psychological well-being.
I’ve been involved in politics for over 20 years. Until last autumn, my arena was municipal politics at home in Vallentuna. This wouldn’t have been possible if Swedish democracy weren’t so open and inclusive.
We have over 40 000 elected representatives in Sweden’s municipalities and regions. That’s 40 000 people who work hard because they believe there’s a way to make Sweden a better country. Just like those who work in or around politics do, even without being elected. Those who make coffee, write programmes, hand out flyers or are there to take care of the kids a few too many evenings and weekends so that the other parent has time for their commitments as a local politician. Swedish politics is a popular movement. Isn’t it fantastic?
But – and this is important – being part of the great political machinery requires having more than just basic language skills. You have to master the Swedish language. You have to understand democracy and its principles. Cultural, social and economic exclusion are democratic exclusion. Policies that improve integration are policies that strengthen democracy.
I often talk about the importance of reading, and that’s exactly what this is about. If you really want to master the Swedish language, you have to read books. The earlier you start and the more you read, the better. It doesn’t just lead to good grades and a big vocabulary. It opens up a world of possibilities. Possibilities to – as I did – step into the municipal council and make a real difference as a 19-year-old. That’s why I, together with the Minister for Schools, have initiated comprehensive efforts to deal with the reading crisis we’re grappling with in Sweden.
Some time ago, I met an older Jewish man who told me that his son had received a necklace with a Star of David as a present at his Bar Mitzvah. But his son, who’s now an adult, hadn’t worn it even once. Not because he wasn’t proud of his Jewish identity, but because he didn’t dare. Members of the Jewish minority – along with Jewish institutions such as synagogues and schools – are targets for violence, hate speech and other expressions of antisemitism. The hate doesn’t come from one place, but many; from the extreme right, the extreme left and Islamists.
I understand the fear, and I understand the choice to not wear that Star of David. But I will never surrender to such a reality. Combating antisemitism is a priority for the Government. We've therefore appointed a working group at the Government Offices to take a holistic approach to the problems faced by the Jewish minority.
It goes without saying that the principle that no one should be ashamed of their culture, sexual orientation or – yes, quite simply who they are – applies to everyone. In a democracy, each and every person must feel safe to express their identity and take part in the public debate without facing hate or threats.
As a politician, I’m focused on one thing: identifying and resolving problems. That makes it easy to focus on what needs to be fixed, while forgetting to talk about everything that’s working. But the fact is that Swedish democracy is remarkably well-functioning. International surveys repeatedly show that Sweden is a world-class country in terms of democratic influence, voter turnout, public trust, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Together with our Nordic neighbours, we are a role model for many other countries. Not in every respect – but definitely as a democracy.
But there’s an aspect of politics that those surveys never manage to capture. And that’s how fun it is and how good it feels when you successfully improve something. The joy of meeting voters, children and young people who will take over after us.
If we want to present an attractive case for democratic participation, we should not shy away from discussing difficult topics, but we must also take time to stop and see the big picture. And that’s the picture of one of the most robust and flourishing democratic systems in the world. Being a part of it is a privilege – a source of pride and joy.
With that, I would like to wish you all a truly happy Almedalen week!