Anna Lindh

Tragic Prelude
The murder of Foreign Minister Anna Lindh
cast a heavy pall over the EMU referendum

Sweden's referendum on the European Monetary Union took place in an atmosphere of shock and grief over the murder of Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, the government's most popular figure and a strong advocate of EMU membership. She was stabbed by a lone assailant in the midst of shoppers at a Stockholm department store on the afternoon of September 10th, and died early the next morning of severe knife wounds to the liver and abdomen.

That traumatic event just four days before the referendum raised the possibility that its outcome might be affected by a wave of sympathy votes in favour of the choice that Anna Lindh had urged. But Swedish voters evidently were able to distinguish between their anguish over her violent death, which was intense and widespread, and their assessment of the EMU. Accordingly, the referendum has been interpreted as a triumph of democracy and a testimony to the maturity of Swedish voters.

The murder awoke frightful memories of Prime Minister Olof Palme’s assassination by a gunman on a nearby sidewalk in 1986. Palme’s murder remains unsolved, and there are several more or less plausible theories of political motives that may have been involved Thus far, however, there is nothing to indicate that the murder of Anna Lindh was anything other than the work of a lone lunatic. A strong suspect, an immigrant from the Balkans, has been arrested and is expected to go on trial in early 2004.

With two national leaders murdered in public during the space of seventeen years, one might get the impression that Sweden is an unusually violent society. Actually, however, it is generally just the opposite, and the relative lack of violence has made it possible for public figures to move about with an exceptional degree of freedom-- at least until now.

Not even the murder of Olof Palme had any significant effect on the remarkably open nature of Swedish society. I recall, for example, visiting the parliament buildings just three years after Palme’s death to attend a seminar. Presenting myself to the guard on duty in my heavily accented Swedish, I was waved on without so much as a cursory glance at the contents of my backpack. On the way to the seminar room, I passed several of Sweden’s most prominent political leaders and could have easily done them harm if so inclined.

Another time, I was riding on the underground (subway) when former prime minister Ingvar Carlsson, one of the most familiar faces in Sweden, entered the car alone and rode several stops without once being addressed or otherwise pestered by the other passengers. I have seen the lanky figure of another former prime minister, Carl Bildt, waiting patiently in line for his turn at a sidewalk ATM machine.

This has been a fairly common sort of experience in Sweden. In addition to a low level of violence, it reflects a deeply-rooted tradition of respect for others’ privacy-- even for those who happen to be nationally or internationally famous. Once, attending a church concert, I happened to notice a very familiar elderly gentlemen sitting alone in an upper gallery. It was the film director, Ingmar Bergman, who was surely recognized by most of those present, but who made his way through the post-concert crowd without the slightest sign of interest or curiosity from anyone.

For celebrities who long for doting attention, the Swedish public must be a terrible disappointment. But for any prominent figure who enjoys the pleasures of anonymity, it offers many advantages. One of them is that, at least until 10 September 2003, a cabinet minister could decide to do a spot of shopping amidst the downtown throngs without taking a bodyguard along. Likewise, Olof Palme had dismissed his bodyguards before strolling to his death along the streets of Stockholm on the night of 28 February 1986.

Since that night, the Swedish king and prime minister have been placed under more or less constant protection. For cabinet ministers and other officials, however, bodyguards have been provided only on occasions of definite or suspected threats, and none was believed to be present yesterday. But now the foreign minister is dead, and there will no doubt be some changes made.

The paramount question is whether or not it will be possible to protect the lives of public officials without isolating them from the citizens they represent, or otherwise restricting the democratic openness that has been one of the hallmarks of Swedish society.

Al Burke
5 December 2003