The political entrepreneur – a new breed of politician

2 September 2010

A sweeping change is underway in the Swedish democratic system. The number of people who are members of a political party is shrinking, and voters are becoming more independent with each election. Not even politicians are as faithful to their parties these days, according to research from the Department of Political Science. The turnover among members of parliament has increased markedly in recent years.

An election is coming soon, and the battle for our votes is at full pitch. We voters make up our minds about which party to vote for very late. In 1964 only about 18 percent made their decision during the campaign period. By 2002 this figure had risen to as high as 57 percent. And among our parliamentary politicians, there is a similar tendency of infidelity. The faithful party worker is facing competition from the “political entrepreneur,” who jumps in and out of politics at will.
“What we are witnessing is the advent of a new breed of politician,” says political scientist Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg, who in collaboration with colleague Jörgen Hermansson, has done research on the subject.

Political entrepreneurs see politics as an assignment that is governed by short-term contracts rather than by a life-long commitment to a party. To them, the Riksdagen is merely one of multiple potential arenas for their own agenda. They wish to be heard and seen, and they convey their message using all imaginable means. Not least via the mass media. Long-term, anonymous, and faithful service to a party is not an attractive option for them.

This is something that is impacting the entire Riksdagen.
“The turnover among our politicians has increased dramatically in recent years. In the past it took five terms to replace the entire Riksdagen. Today it takes only 2.5 terms,” says Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg.

These changes in the working life of politicians also entail consequences for our democratic system in general, according to these scholars.
“We are shifting from a pronounced party democracy to something we call a public democracy. The parties are weakening, and instead of relying on their party system, these “political entrepreneurs” are turning to the media, consultants, and public-opinion institutes to communicate their message to their public (their voters),” says Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg.

However, public democracy should not be confused with populism, as Jörgen Hermansson sees it.
“It might well be that there is greater scope for populism in a public democracy than in a party democracy. On the other hand, we need to remember that today’s voters are both better informed and better educated than in the past. To succeed as a political entrepreneur, you need to have a message that voters perceive as both urgent and attractive.”