In 1968 Olof Palme, Sweden’s minister of education at the time, held a speech, standing in the back of a flatbed truck. The truck was parked by Almedalen Park and a couple of hundred people gathered to listen to what he had to say. Most likely these people — including Palme — had no idea they had changed history in the whole Nordic-Baltic region and 50 years later democracy festivals would be a vital part of the DNA of people living in the north of Europe.
Parliamentary democracy, the core model of governance in the Nordic and Baltic countries, is challenged in many ways. Crisis in democracy in Europe and beyond has been widely debated in recent years. A growing number of voters prefer populist and nationalist candidates; public mistrust of government, parliament and political parties is rising. At the same time, voter turnout is decreasing. An increasing sense of uncertainty, complexity, and unpredictability among the population helps foster the rise of authoritarian leaders and populist parties.
However, democracy is about much more than democratic institutions and sets of written rules and laws. It is a culture that has to be nourished. A key to enabling this kind of culture is the creation of spaces and platforms where people can physically get together, talk to each other, listen, get inspired, exchange opinions and debate their ideas. Active civic engagement, a culture of discussing and critical thinking, and open governance can serve as a response to the alarming rise of authoritarianism and nationalism in our geographic neighbourhood.
Palme’s speech eventually grew into an annual summer gathering for the Swedish people, a platform where people come together to nourish democracy. One-by-one, all the nations in the region have set up their own festivals, where people of different trades and backgrounds come together each summer to discuss how to improve their countries. Civil society activists, entrepreneurs, government officials, ministers and ordinary people sit together and casually talk about how to make their country a better place for everybody. These platforms for constructive political dialogue across opinions, age, gender and hierarchy are democracy festivals.
We can proudly say that democracy festivals have gone viral. They are all well known and respected in their countries, they have all become a must-attend event for everybody who is interested in the country’s future. We believe this is real participatory democracy!