A Reluctantly Active Altruist?
On Party Membership and Party Activism
Gissur Ó Erlingsson
, Centre for Municipality Studies, Linköping University
Richard Öhrvall, Division of Political Science, Linköping University
Corresponding author, firstname.lastname@example.org
Why do individuals join political parties, and why do some take a step further to stand as
candidates for political parties in local elections? Especially in Sweden, in light of dwindling party
membership – now half that of what they were in the early 1990s – and the difficulties some
party organisations experience in filling their ballots with candidates, it is crucial to answer these
questions. To give answers, we conducted a survey of local government officials in Sweden. The
study is based on 169 survey responses from local councillors and three main findings are
reported: First, the results do not support classical rational choice-assumptions that social status,
career ambitions and material rewards drive participation in political parties and local
government. Rather, a sense of civic duty seems to have a strong impact. Second, the importance
of recruitment cannot be exaggerated if we want to understand why people join parties: many
respondents cited their recruitment as a main factor that spurred their participation. Third, given
these two findings, our results indicate that active local party members could be described as
‘reluctantly active altruists’, i.e. driven by civic duty (not by social status, career ambitions or
material rewards) and are recruited by others (rather than by own initiative).
Key words: Political parties, political participation, party membership, civic duty
Why does an individual become a member of a political party? Why do some of these members
go on to become candidates for demanding posts, such as being an elected official in a municipal
executive board or council? Sweden has historically had political parties with a broad member
base, but membership figures have declined severely in the past 25 years to approximately half of
what they were in the early 1990s (Erlingsson and Persson 2014; Petersson 2005). The picture
becomes even gloomier if we add a longer historical perspective (see Karlsson and Lundberg
The declining membership seems a likely factor in the difficulties parties currently encounter in
filling ballots with enough candidates for general elections: almost a third of all local party
organisations report difficulties to do this (Valpejl 2014; see also Gidlund and Möller 1999). The
recruitment problem is further exacerbated by the fact that much fewer organizations reported
such difficulties in the 1970s, despite the fact that much more politicians had to be recruited back
then – Sweden had about 50 000 local politicians in 1974, whilst in 2014 that figure was
approximately 36 000 (SCB 2015).
Thus, given the difficulties parties today face filling their ballots, it seems crucial to find ways for
attracting more people to participate in political parties. The reasons are twofold: first, it is
essential to fill the posts in elected assemblies at various levels of representative democracy, and
second, for representative democracy to function properly, parties ought to remain vital
democratic arenas. Hence, we believe that in order to attract members and candidates willing to
stand for office, parties need to equip themselves with better information about how and why
individuals choose to get involved in politics.
In addition to the obvious relevance of these questions for society in general, there is good
reason to carry out research in the field of political participation in Sweden with this particular
focus. Existing Swedish research on political participation is dominated by studies of election
participation (such as SOU 1999:132, Oscarsson and Holmberg 2004; Oskarsson 2006; Öhrvall
2006); political participation adjacent to representative institutions, such as participation in
“democratic experiments” (Gilljam and Jodal 2006; compare Montin 1998); involvement in
various movements focused on a single issue (Amnå 2008); and “consumer power” (Micheletti
The implication is as remarkable as it is regrettable: there is a serious dearth of systematic
knowledge about the type of participation that acts as the very cornerstones of our democratic
system – participation in political parties. This is also symptomatic for research on Swedish
parties. Considered in light of the significance that parties have in our political system, the fact
that these parties are under-researched must be viewed as a major problem – a perspective
captured by Henrik Oscarsson (2009)
, when he wrote: “[P]arty research [is] thin in Sweden ... We
lack systematic knowledge about one of the most fundamental actors in representative
democracy: political parties [author’s translation].”
In this article, our aim is to contribute to this field. More precisely, we will do this by exploring
the question of how and why people become involved in political parties, and later also decide to
stand as candidates in local elections.
The paper is organized as follows: We begin by describing the data material on which we have
built the investigation, as well as our strategy for analysis. We then provide an overview of
existing avenues of research in the subject of political participation. Thereafter we respond to the
central question of how and why people choose to become members in political parties and
subsequently choose careers as elected officials.
Data and methodology
The empirical results presented here are based on survey-responses from councillors elected in
2006 to the municipal councils of 13 municipalities in the County of Östergötland in Sweden.
The survey questionnaire was distributed by mail in autumn of 2009 to all councillors that had
prematurely dropped out from their office, as well as one in three of the councillors that still held
We received responses from 33 who had dropped out from their commissions prematurely, and
136 individuals who then still held their office; hence, we have a total of 169 responses for our
analysis. Since we here are interested in what makes people become politically active (and not
why some of these people leave politics), we do not distinguish between these two groups of
respondents (and even if the number of respondents is small, nothing indicates a difference in
their answers in respect of what is analysed in this study).
The total nonresponse rate was 31 per cent. As was suspected, nonresponse was greater among
those who had left office, compared to those who had remained on the council. If nonresponse
leads to skewed results, this would depend partly on the share of nonresponse and partly on the
fact that those who responded differ from those who did not. Even if, for understandable
reasons, it is difficult to make such comparisons, we could not find any significant differences
between these two groups.
It is worth noting that with this material, we cannot compare politicians to citizens. This means
that we cannot study the effects that resources, psychological engagement or recruitment have on
whether or not individuals are active in parties. On the other hand, we can examine the extent to
which politicians specify the reasons for their political involvement. It should also be pointed out
that the survey was directed at councillors in Östergötland, and that from a purely statistical
perspective, the results cannot speak in general for all of Sweden’s municipalities. Nevertheless
we can state that the demographic mix of councillors in Östergötland is by and large the same as
for the rest of Sweden. Therefore, we assert that the results of the study and the general line of
reasoning that we have applied here is of interest for anyone who wishes to create a discourse on
the conditions for politics in Swedish municipalities and elsewhere.
Generally, models based on individuals’ socioeconomic status (SES models) have enjoyed a
special standing in research on political participation. The theory is primarily associated with
Sidney Verba and Norman H. Nie (1972), and over the years, it has been employed in most
studies carried out in this field. Many of these studies confirm the hypothesis that socioeconomic
status is indeed related to political participation. However, the SES model suffers from a
somewhat weak theoretical foundation, and provides us with no information about underlying
mechanisms making it comprehensible why people become engaged in politics.
For one, the question of individuals socioeconomic status does not bring us closer to a solution
for the collective action-problem which Mancur Olson (1971) once formulated. This problem
can be described in the following (and somewhat simplified) manner: Interest groups – which
political parties can be considered to be – usually strive for what is best for the whole of the
relevant group. When an individual is faced with the choice of investing time, energy and money
in becoming active in a political party, for example, or some private project (such as family or
leisure activities), the theoretical prediction is that the individual will choose the latter. Thus,
Olson’s theory states that individuals are more likely not to invest their time, money and energy
for the good of the group (for example, engage themselves in parties), and instead devote these
resources to their own private life projects.
But why, Olsson asked, do so many people still participate in various types of organizations,
causes and interest groups? His own answer was simply that people get involved, for example in
political parties, if there is some kind of private gain to be had – what he called selective incentives –
which is associated to the participation. The conclusion here is that one’s own interests do
explain the participation after all.
Whatever one might think of Olsson’s answer to this question, his reasoning emphasizes the
problem with socioeconomic resource models: their focus on who participates in various forms of
political activity do not answer the considerably more important question of why people choose
to get involved in organizations (compare Leighley 1995). Therefore, to provide a more
comprehensive explanation for political participation, Verba et al. (1995) developed the Civic
Voluntarism Model – which since has come to dominate research on political participation.
According to them, there are three main types of explanation for political behaviour: resources,
psychological engagement and recruitment through networks. These three factors provide three
different answers to the question of why individuals become politically active: they can, they want
to, or they have been asked to participate.
Resources are the aspect of Verba et al.’s model that captures the factors traditionally
encompassed by the SES model. However, the term “resources” refers to factors on a higher
level of abstraction than the factors specified in the SES model, such as for example education
and income. According to Verba et al. the three primary resources are money, time and civic
skills. Specifying resources in this way also provides the model with a way to explain why certain
individuals can be more active than others; this level of activity depends entirely on whether they
can afford to take the time required and also have the skills/competence to do the work. Time is
a particularly central resource for political commissions of trust because such posts – in a
municipal council, for example – require commitment to considerable amounts of time under a
long period of time. A political commission of trust is also difficult to carry out if one lacks basic
understanding of political processes and how political work is done.
However, not everyone who has these resources decides to become politically active. To explain
this, we must turn to the second factor provided by Verba et al.: psychological engagement.
Simply put, becoming politically active requires an interest in politics and a belief that political
involvement is important. Thus, a fundamental psychological factor that more or less is a
necessary prerequisite for political engagement is political interest. A number of studies show that
people who have an interest in politics are more politically active than those who are not. This
can seem self-evident, but it emphasizes the importance of examining other factors than just
resources: without an interest, it is hardly likely that political involvement will develop – even if
an individual possesses the right resources. Another factor discussed in the literature is political
efficacy – faith in one’s own capacity to influence the political process. In addition, the
involvement must be perceived as meaningful. If individuals lack faith in the system, it is unlikely
that they will get involved in politics.
The third factor specified by Verba et al. is recruitment through networks. An important
explanation, historically ignored in analyses of political behaviour based on the SES model, is the
fact that individuals at the end of the day de facto are asked and encouraged by others to become
politically active. While it is still obvious that recruitment by itself can seldom explain political
participation, whether or not a person is asked to participate can be the decisive factor in a
person’s move to become politically active. This “recruiting”, or alternatively, “selection”
perspective – which focuses on the behaviour of parties and individuals already members (rather
than that of their presumptive members) – has increasingly been applied in empirical research on
party and association membership. This has also found good empirical support in research, for
example, in Sweden (cf. Teorell 2003; Myrberg 2004).
The fact that Verba et al. emphasize recruitment as a factor in their model must be considered in
light of the criticism the SES model has received in subsequent research on political participation:
that the model lacks the ability to sufficiently demonstrate the significance of context and
institutions (see for example Huckfeldt 1979; Leighley 1990; Leighley and Nagler 1992; Leighley
1995; and Morales 2009). Few would assert that the individual’s resources and attitudes are entirely
without importance. But we also find ourselves in situations where we interact with other
individuals, organizations and institutions. Thus, depending on the context of the individual, the
likelihood of being asked to participate in politics will vary. This is, of course, associated with the
level of political activity in our immediate surroundings. Mobilization and recruitment – that is,
for example, political organizations’ own strategies for increasing membership – have thus
received ever more attention in research on participation. However, this does not mean that the
socioeconomic factors have vanished completely from the frameworks employed in the research.
Rather, current research points to interaction effects between factors on both individual and
It is important to emphasize that these three factors are not mutually exclusive, i.e. resources,
psychological engagement and recruitment interact. One such example is the effect of education on
political participation. Education can give individuals increased civil skills (resources), and by
learning more about politics, these individuals can also develop a greater political interest and
increased faith in their own ability (psychological engagement, sense of efficacy). In addition,
highly educated persons tend to acquire more central roles in social networks, which increases the
likelihood that they will be asked to get involved in politics (cf. Persson and Oscarsson 2010,
Persson 2011). As Leighley (1995) points out, socioeconomic group affiliation varies not only
with political resources, but also with the probability of finding oneself in situations of mobilizing
activities (formal or informal), which include offers and requests for political participation. A
modern example of concrete findings in this regard – taken from the Swedish context – can be
found in an analysis by Per Strömblad and Gunnar Myrberg of how the constitution of various
neighbourhoods influences the likelihood of political participation. The authors demonstrate how
socioeconomic differences between different areas of a city influence the probability that a
randomly selected individual will be invited to participate in political activities: “In areas
characterized by unemployment and dependence on assistance, the chances of being recruited are
significantly lower than in other areas, irrespective of the characteristics a given individual may
have” (Strömblad and Myrberg 2008: 2). In other words, one’s neighbourhood and social
environment influences the likelihood of getting politically involved.
This article focuses on one particular type of political participation: becoming a member of a
political party and then, subsequently, becoming an active member in the sense that one stands
for office for same said party. What conclusions can we draw, then, from earlier research that is
focused on this particular kind of participation?
Research has traditionally shown that elected officials have a higher level of education, higher
income, and are older than the general public on average (see for example Esaiasson and
Holmberg 1988, Esaiasson and Holmberg 1996, Holmberg 1974, Holmberg 1989, Bäck and
Öhrvall 2004, Persson and Öhrvall 2008, Scarrow and Gezgor 2010). Thus, socioeconomic
factors help us describe the kinds of individuals who become politically involved. However,
research on party activitism also provides support for the explanation that parties’ own pro-active
initiatives – i.e. recruitment strategies – also play an important role. Still, those who are recruited
have often been politically active in some form or another prior to his, which means that it is
difficult to isolate the sole effect of recruitment from the other factors (such as resources) that
can explain earlier participation. Abramson and Clagget (2001) have nevertheless attempted to
determine the effect of recruitment, taking into account earlier political behaviour. Their results
indicate that recruitment creates a significant effect, even when taking into account this previous
One interesting question is whether the socioeconomic makeup of a politicians as a group has
changed as party involvement has declined. We know that since the 1980s, party activity levels
have dropped in the Western democracies (Whiteley 2011, Scarrow and Gezgor 2010). But does
this turn of events also mean that individuals from other types of groups are showing more
interest than before in political parties? Scarrow and Grezgor (2010) have examined this, and
found that although fewer persons are getting involved in political parties, party membership is
made up of roughly the same combination of socioeconomic groups. In the 12 European
countries in the study, the greatest difference in group makeup for political activity in the 2000s
compared to that of the 1990s was that the average age had increased. Otherwise, since the 1990s
there have been no significant changes in the socioeconomic profile of party members in the
The review above paints the current research situation in rather broad strokes. How should one,
against that background, proceed to answer the question of mechanisms that determine political
involvement? To examine what makes people run for office, it is a good idea to split the analysis
into a number of central steps. These steps have been described as “leaking pipes” (see Prewitt
1970; Bäck 2000). The idea is this: if we start by looking at the population as a whole, individuals
must take a number of steps to eventually reach a commission of trust; this means that large
groups of possible candidates disappear along the way; and the where, when and why they do this
are important here. The road to a seat on a local government council can thus be divided into
five parts. For a person to be able to take a seat on a council he or she must be:
2. Willing to take on the commission of trust
3. Party member
4. Nominated by the party to stand for election
For the remainder of the paper, we will examine these five steps to answer the question of who
becomes a party member, and then proceed all the way to become an elected official in a
El e c table
The first step in becoming a member of a council is to be electable at all. A person who is not
electable has obviously no chance to get a seat. However, few inhabitants in a municipality could
be considered unelectable. In Sweden, the criteria for being electable are the same as those for
having the right to vote. The criterion that most often prevents electability is age: to be electable
in a municipality, one must be 18 years of age or older on the election day. Another group of
unelectable persons comprises foreign citizens. For EU citizens, Norwegians and Icelanders, it is
sufficient to be 18 years of age and to be registered as a resident of Sweden in order to vote – and
thus these persons are electable. All other foreign citizens must have been registered as residents
in Sweden for at least three years. In any case, the number of people in Sweden who are 18 years
or older but who cannot run for a seat on the municipal council is very small.
can say that few persons are prevented by the electoral system from participating in the
representative politics of local government in Sweden.
Wi llingness to take on th e commission of trust
According to a survey conducted in 2000 by the Municipal Democracy Committee,
approximately 1 per cent of citizens between 18 and 74 years of age had at least one municipal
commission of trust. Another 15 per cent said that they would seriously consider taking such a
post if they were asked to do so (Nielsen 2001). Turning that around, then, we see that 84 per
cent of the survey respondents would not consider taking such a post.
A slightly higher share of
willingness is evident in the surveys in the Swedish Region of Västra Götaland being conducted
by the SOM Institute (Johansson and Nilsson 2010). In 2009, five per cent replied that they
would definitely be willing to consider taking a political post in their respective home
municipality, for a political party that they support. Another 15 per cent said that they might
consider it. This figure has, in fact, been quite steady over time – between 15-20 percent of
Swedish citizens have, since things were started to be measured in the 1960s, stated that they will
definitely, or at least consider, standing for office in local government.
It is likely that for the majority of the respondents, a question on the willingness to stand for
office becomes very hypothetical. If a person has not even considered entering into municipal
politics, it is probably quite difficult to provide a carefully considered answer. It is possible that
some respondents who replied that they would not consider taking on a municipal commission
of trust could be persuaded to do so nevertheless. On the other hand, some who answered that
they would consider taking such a post would probably hesitate when faced with the situation in
reality. Replying in a survey that one is willing to become politically active is by no means an
obligation to do so. Even with these factors in mind, we can be confident in our conclusion that
most citizens simply do not want to take on the role of a councillor.
Is this general lack of willingness a problem, and if so, to what degree? In the same breath that
we say that the majority of citizens are not willing to take on a commission of trust, it is
worthwhile to remind ourselves that not all that many people are needed to fill these posts. In
2015 there were approximately 36 000 persons who held a commission of trust in Swedish
municipalities (SCB 2015) which corresponds to only circa 0.5 per cent of the population that can
vote. Viewed from this perspective, we must conclude that the fact that between 15-20 per cent
are willing to act as councillor is a fairly huge pool of potential candidates to draw from.
As mentioned, Swedish political parties have however reported that it has become increasingly
difficult to for them to find individuals standing as candidates for office. This can easily lead to
the mistaken belief that these recruitment problems are a result of decreasing willingness to
participate. This is, as hinted, not so. The fact is that Swedish willingness to take a political post
has remained surprisingly stable over time. Studies carried out in the late 1970s and 1980s show
that approximately the same amount of people were prepared to take on a municipal commission
of trust then, as shown in similar studies performed in the early 2000s (see Government Inquiry
1989:108; Wallin et al. 1981). Other investigations also confirm the impression that willingness to
serve has not changed notably over time (see for example Johansson and Nilsson 2010; Bäck
2000). Thus there is no support for the claim that willingness has decreased over time. Against
this background, parties’ claims of increasing problems in recruiting possible candidates for office
are more difficult to explain.
In this context, it is important to note that the interest in taking office is not the same in all
demographic groups. Approximately eight per cent more men than women stated that they could
entertain the idea of running for office (Nielsen 2001). Curiously enough, these numbers have
not changed in recent decades, despite the improvement of women’s positions in society and
working life in general, and that women have also won an increasingly larger share of seats in
municipal governments. Thus the decreasing gender gap among elected officials is not a result of
diminishing differences between men’s and women’s willingness to serve in office. In addition, it
should be noted that compared to other groups in the population, neither younger people nor
people born outside Sweden seem to be less positive to taking on an elected position (compare
Nielsen 2001). This is somewhat intriguing, since younger people and immigrants are
underrepresented among elected officials. In fact, studies have shown that younger people are in
fact more positive to hold office than older persons (see for example Johansson 2008). The
underrepresentation of younger individuals in council can, thus, not simply been explained away
by stating that they are not interested in holding office.
Let us now shift focus to the question of why most citizens are not interested in taking on a
commission of trust. However, before we begin this discussion, we need to introduce key
concepts. When we look at people who choose not to get involved in politics, there can be either
political or private reasons for these decisions, or some combination of both (see Wallin et al.
1981). Political reasons include those reasons related to politics and the commission of trust.
They also include reasons associated with the role of being an elected official, such as the
relationship with other elected officials, the media and the general public. Private reasons are
other causes not directly related to politics or the commission of trust, including family situations,
situations in one’s working life and one’s own or family member’s health, among others.
So what are the main reasons that people are not willing to take on the role of municipal elected
official? Nielsen (2001) has taken a closer look at this. Those who are negative or uncertain to
stand for office, said that their view depended primarily on lack of interest in local politics. The
second most common reason is lack of interest in party politics, and third is (subjectively
perceived) lack of required knowledge. These can all be considered political reasons, because they
are related to politics as such. It is possible that these reasons, at least in part, are connected – and
that greater knowledge about municipal politics is required in order to generate interest. It is also
worth noting in this context that few persons would say that they do not want to serve in office
because they think that holding a commission of trust it is a meaningless pursuit.
Proclaiming disinterest in politics as a reason for not running for office is common among
younger people. One could view this as troubling, but on the other hand, for both younger and
older persons, it is rare to say that serving in office is meaningless. Lack of appropriate
knowledge is a reason given by more women than men. However, we would like to emphasize
that such a lack of knowledge should not pose a barrier to getting involved. If it is knowledge
that is lacking, not interest in the task, then perhaps interested individuals could acquire the
relevant knowledge in the process of getting politically involved. Saying that one has insufficient
knowledge to take on a commission of trust can very well be an expression of insufficient self-
confidence. Earlier research has shown that in general, women have less political self-confidence
than do men (see, for example, Petersson et al. 1998).
Seen over time, the reasons that some people do not wish to take office have not changed very
much. However, some tendencies can be detected. There is decreased interest in party
identification, as well as decreased interest in local politics. All in all, in the long term, loosened
party identification and decreasing interest in local politics, are likely bad news for the political
parties and their ability to fill their ballots with candidates who are truly willing to run for office
in local government.
Bec oming a party member
Political parties are undoubtedly the main actors in Swedish representative democracy. Sweden is
a party democracy, where one votes for parties that take on the role of decision-making in the
Swedish Parliament and councils. It is true that a certain element of individual candidate voting
has been introduced in recent years, but parties still determine which names will be placed on the
ballot and their order of priority (cf. Soininen and Etzler 2006; Wide 2006). Therefore, a crucial
step on the path to assuming a political commission of trust in Sweden is first and foremost to
become a member of a political party. There is no formal requirement on being a party member
in order to be that party’s candidate in an election. However, de facto, almost all candidates are
members. This can seem quite understandable if one is to represent a party in an elected body,
one should also be a member of that party.
Of the 15-20 percent who state to be willing to run for office, most are not members of a
political party. If we limit our discussion to those who actually are party members, and who are
currently in office or willing to run for election, this number dwindles to 3 per cent. However, as
we noted earlier, today there are approximately 36,000 persons currently holding municipal
commissions of trust in Sweden. This corresponds to only circa 0.5 per cent of the voting
population. Therefore, even if we limit our discussion to those who are currently party members,
there seem to be more than enough willing to take on commissions of trust in local government.
However, one stumbling block remains For a majority of the party members who said they were
willing to take office no one has approached them to ask whether they would want to take on a
municipal commission of trust for the party. Thus it would seem that most of these persons are
passive party members. It is in the light of this, and other aspects, that a Nordic debate has
developed, in which some scholars speculate whether the parties in and of themselves have
become barriers to people who de facto would be willing to take office (cf. Saglie 2002; Ringkjøb
2004; Soininen and Etzler 2006).
As mentioned, almost 30 per cent of party organizations say that they are finding it difficult to fill
their ballots for general elections (Valpejl 2014; Gidlund and Möller 1999). However, if we take
these results seriously, it would seem that the parties themselves hold the key to solving their
recruitment problems – they need merely to take better stock of their own ranks.
We can also add that of the remaining 13 per cent of those willing to be elected, but who are not
members of a political party, a large majority say that they would be willing to consider joining a
party (see for example Nielsen 2001). This means that there is also a group that could consider
taking on a commission of trust, but that is not interested in becoming members of a party.
Thus it would appear that the following applies: Given that one is willing to engage in municipal
politics, the step of joining a party does not present a major problem. At the same time it should
be emphasized that one can certainly join a political party and still not have any interest in
running for office. It is also possible that willingness to serve is a natural consequence of getting
involved in a political party. Earlier research has shown the membership in associations – political
or unaffiliated – provides training in skills that can be very useful in commissions of trust (Verba
and Nie 1972; see also Leighley 1995).
Why, then, do people nevertheless decide to join a political party? In this respect there is not too
much to draw from, internationally (see McCulloch 1990) or in the Swedish context. Jan
Fredriksson’s investigation (2001) is one of the few Swedish exceptions. He conducted extensive
interviews with 21 elected officials who were new to politics. Most of them said that they had
grown up in a setting of political interest and community involvement, and that they were
themselves interested in social issues. According to their responses, however, these persons had
not been propelled into politics by an express interest in becoming a politician or in a specific
political issue. Rather, it seems their involvement was really more a matter of coincidence.
What did the respondents in our own study state? The results from our survey show that
approximately half of them say that they joined a political party on their own initiative. In many
cases it is likely difficult to determine the precise difference between “own initiative” and the
results of the actions of others. It can of course be a combination of factors that prompts the
choice to join a party, but it is still clear that other actors have significant influence. A survey
conducted in 2000 sent to newly elected officials in 28 municipalities and four counties provided
similar results – even if a somewhat smaller share of respondents reported that they had entered
into politics on their own initiative (Karlsson 2001).
The results confirm the importance of active recruitment on behalf of the parties themselves in
order to increase party membership. More than half state that they became involved only after
the initiative of others. In this context, however, the parties are not the only important players.
Friends, relatives and colleagues also appear to act as guides into politics.
Table 1. Initiative-takers for joining a political party
Contacted by a political party
Asked by a family member
Asked by a friend or acquaintance
Asked by a neighbour
Asked by a colleague at work
No. of respondents
Note: The question was as follows: “How did you decide to join a political party?”
It is worth noting that some gender differences emerged with respect to how people became
party members. As with earlier studies, in our investigation, fewer women report that they
entered into politics on their own initiative. This indicates that parties must take concrete action
if they wish to achieve better balance in gender among their members in general, and among
elected officials in particular. It should be noted, however, that at least to some degree, it is
possible that the very measures that political parties take to recruit women can result in fewer
women participating on their own initiative.
The survey also shows that approximately 60 per cent of the councillors joined a party before
they reached 30 years of age. Few people join a political party after the age of 50. Not all of the
respondents in our study had reached 50, but even if we restrict the numbers to those over 50,
only 13 per cent became party members after the age of 50. Some research indicates that interest
in municipal politics is greater among older persons (Nielsen 2001); this means that parties could
have the potential to increase their membership by targeting this age group. However, we must
note that such strategy would conflicts with the claim often made in public debate – i.e. parties
need to recruit new blood and lower the average age of those serving on councils.
Bec oming a candidate for e l ec tion
If we study the years from 1982 and onward, the total number of candidates for municipal
council seats remained in the range of 56,000–57,000 persons. In connection with the 1998
election, this number decreased to approximately 53 000. Since then it has declined even more. In
the 2006 election, 51,050 candidates vied for the 13,092 seats available on local councils. The
trend of fewer candidates per mandate can also be found in other Nordic countries (cf. Pikkala
2009). For voters, this means that there are fewer candidates to consider. For parties, it means
that there are fewer persons to choose from when offices in local government councils are to be
What do municipal politicians themselves say about running for a seat on the executive
committee? One rather remarkable – and surprising – result is the low number of respondents
who outright stated that they specifically asked to be put on the ballot, i.e. displayed a personal
motivation and drive to be there. Almost nine out of 10 respondents said that they were asked to
run and agreed to do so. A few said that they asked not to be put on the ballot but were
nominated nevertheless. Even if this does reflect the party nomination process to some degree –
after all it is the parties who have the most power over who will be nominated for election (e.g.
Norris 1997) – it is nevertheless interesting that our findings indicates how unusual it is for
politicians themselves to attempt to ensure that they are put on the ballot.
Our study also shows that of those serving on a local council, approximately 60 per cent said that
they were fairly interested in being elected. And oddly enough, five per cent stated that they would
prefer not to be elected officials or absolutely do not want to be elected officials. The remaining
35 per cent say that it would be “all right” to be elected to office.
In other words, a relatively large share of the surveyed population seems to have had rather little
enthusiasm when faced with the prospect of becoming a councillor. It should be noted that these
figures refer to persons among those who are already serving as elected officials; it is likely that
those who entered the race as candidates, but who were not elected, have a less positive view.
Table 2. Reasons for being listed on the ballot for 2006
Requested to be added
to the ballot
Was asked to be a
Declined but was put
on the list anyway
Was listed without
No. of respondents
Note: The question was as follows: “Why were you listed on the ballot for the 2006 election?” The table includes both first-
time and re-elected politicians.
Thus, only a few respondents took it upon themselves to pro-actively ensure that their names
were put on the ballot. In addition, among those who were put on the ballot and were ultimately
elected, 40 per cent did not say that they were interested in serving on the municipal council.
How should these results be interpreted? The fact that so many say that they have reluctantly
taken on the role of politician can definitely be an expression of a Swedish norm: in Sweden it is
not acceptable to publicly proclaim one’s political ambitions (cf. Öhberg 2011). At the same time,
the general picture that emerges from our study is that elected officials do not express a desire to
become a councillor. People run for other reasons. Fredriksson’s study (2001) indicates the same
What, then, are the reasons that individuals still want to run for office nonetheless? We asked
several questions in this regard. The main reasons cited are quite general, along the lines of
respondents wanting to “contribute to the development of a better society” and that they are
“generally interested in political and social issues”. The second most frequent reason given is that
people want to “make an effort for a specific group in society”. However, only about one third of
the respondents considered this reason to be a very important factor in the decision to run for a
seat on the executive committee.
For the vast majority of respondents, motives such as improving “one’s own position” or
“personal career” by entering politics were of almost no importance whatsoever in deciding to
run for office. Thus, if we are to believe our survey responses, Olson’s (1971) prediction – that
selective incentives (i.e. self-serving motives) determine elected officials’ decision to get involved in
politics – cannot be confirmed. The results of our study are similar to those found in previous
Table 3. Reasons for running for office. Per cent who stated that the respective reason was very
Contribute to the improvement of
Generally involved in politics and
Make an effort for a specific group in
Interested in/involved in specific
Wanted to learn more about how the
political system works
Considered it my duty
Liked the social environment of
Thought it would help advance my
Thought it could be a springboard to
a career in politics
Note: The question was as follows: “How important were the following reasons for you when you decided to become a
candidate for election?” For each reason, the respondents have answered with respect to candidacy for the municipal executive
board elections in 2006. The four response alternatives were; “very important”, “fairly important”, “not very important” and
“not important at all”. The number of respondents varies between 156 and 165 for the various reasons.
El e c ted officials
If we apply the perspective of the 2006 election, for a population of approximately 9 million
people we have 13 092 seats in the municipal councils. This means that in 2006 approximately
one in 700 persons was voted into office as a municipal councillor. Before we proceed to a
summary of our conclusions, we think it is important to say something about how elected
officials regarded their political interest and involvement prior to taking a seat on the council. We
asked how councillors viewed their commissions of trust and the opportunities to achieve their
political goals before they became councillors. The results show that most of them thought that
their political involvement would give them “insight into local politics” and “opportunities to
participate in interesting discussions”. However, not even half of the respondents said that they
believed to a high degree that they would be able to gain acceptance for their own arguments and
opinions in the party. Even fewer had hopes of pushing through a decision on an individual
What is interesting here is that, at least in retrospect, municipal politicians said that they did not
have particularly high hopes that they would have significant influence when they entered the
local political arena. Therefore, because it is unusual to enter into politics with the objective of
creating concrete results in municipal issues, it is possible that these modest expectations are not
viewed by politicians as a problem.
Table 4. Expectations prior to taking office. Share who expected that, to a high degree, each
phenomenon would be achieved. Per cent
Gain insight and understanding of
Participate in interesting
Find support for my own assertions
and opinions in the party group
Contribute to improving the
Lead action on an issue of interest
Make successful arguments in the
executive council for my own
Note: The question was as follows: “Before you were elected to office in municipal politics, to what degree did you believe that
you would be able to accomplish the following through that office?” For each phenomenon the respondents have been asked to
choose one alternative. The alternatives were: “to a high degree”, “to a certain degree”, to a small degree”, “not at all”, and “not
applicable/don’t remember”. The category for the last alternative, “not applicable/can’t remember”, was excluded from the
calculation of percentages for this question. The number of respondents included in the percentage calculations varies between
161 and 164 for the other four alternatives.
Conclusion: the councillor as a “reluctantly active altruist”?
What are our conclusions, then? The first and probably most important message is that
recruitment plays a major role when people get involved in politics. The significance of whether
or not an individual was specifically asked to participate in politics cannot be overestimated.
Studies in political participation are more and more agreeing that getting involved in political
parties depends to a large degree on something as basic as people being asked to participate
(Verba et al. 1995; Fredriksson 2001; Myrberg 2004; Morales 2009; cf. Leighley 1995).
This conclusion, we believe, is important knowledge that political parties can make use of – to a
greater extent than seems to be the case until now, in Sweden at least. In this respect, some
researchers have gone so far as to speculate that the parties themselves comprise barriers to
citizen involvement. Early on, Anders Håkansson (1995) developed this hypothesis for the
Swedish context, and for Ringkjøb (2004:7) it is a central empirical message: “My study indicates
that the political parties may be the main obstacle to exploiting the potential for recruitment and
participation within the citizenry” (see also Soininen and Etzler 2006; Saglie 2002).
This notion is closely associated with the cartel theory of Katz & Mairs (1995). Political parties
would be slow to agree that citizens have turned their backs on political participation (cf. Buch
Jensen 2000). However, there are a few indications that the situation may be quite the opposite.
Parties are no longer dependent on membership fees or voluntary work from the members, so, in
Sweden at least there is no longer any strong incentives to have a large membership base.
Nevertheless, sufficient numbers of people seem to have been recruited to fill ballots for the
elections. In this context a reasonable question is whether party activists, when recruiting
candidates (and perhaps this is only human, after all), seek out and attract like-minded individuals
of similar backgrounds and cultures? Such mechanisms in modern-day party recruitment activities
could explain the social representation in our elected bodies, where women, younger persons, and
foreign-born persons are underrepresented in local government (SCB 2015). It is likely that there
are many would-be politicians Sweden – individuals whose commitment and involvement could
be sparked, if only parties would seek out and make special efforts to recruit citizens from these
Second, the picture that emerges from our study shows that those who do succeed in taking all
five steps to becoming an elected official seem to be somewhat reluctantly involved – at least
according to their own claims, as we interpret the answers in the surveys. The majority of them
entered politics on someone else’s initiative. In addition, the respondents also said that they were
not particularly active in getting themselves nominated for the ballot. Nor were they excessively
enthusiastic when faced with the prospect of being elected. And as a last observation, before
respondents were elected, they had fairly low expectations when it came to being able to exert
concrete influence in political decisions. The same result – that many municipal politicians have
rather reluctantly entered into their commissions of trust – has also been found in Norway and
Finland. In his study, Jacob Aars (1998) demonstrates that two of three persons nominated by
political parties agreed to run for office because they believed that it was highly unlikely that they
would win, or that in reality they did not want to be elected. Against the background of these
results, Aars (2000) has posed a question that is also relevant for the Swedish context: To what
degree can democratic control be exercised in a system where politicians are neither particularly
enthusiastic nor really willing to carry out their task as councillors (cf. Schlesinger 1994)?
Still, when asked to describe their motivation for becoming politically active, councillors still
seem to be driven by a desire to make some kind of contribution to society. The assumption that
they have been powered by monetary or material motives, or for that matter have been keen to
strengthen their social status, appears to have little basis when it comes to officials in local
government. In addition, we found that politicians seldom refer to concrete reasons for their
involvement; the lack of the desire to make a career of politics is particularly striking. Rather than
stemming from self-interest, the psychological commitment politicians have seems to be based
on a sense of civic duty or obligation and contributing to the proper function of municipal
In this context it should be noted that we are discussing the statements that politicians
themselves have made with regard to their motives for political involvement. In addition, the
expectations that our respondents said that they had prior to entering office have been provided
after the fact, and this does create some uncertainty. Nevertheless we see little reason to believe
our respondents would present a misleading picture of their motives. The responses that refer to
more recent events – such as respondents’ views about being elected in the latest election – and
responses that are not purely personal opinion (such as how respondents became politically
active) also outweigh this uncertainty. In other words, few people enter into Swedish municipal
politics with a burning sense of enthusiasm or far-reaching personal political ambitions. In this
sense, therefore, the Swedish councillor is perhaps most accurately described as a reluctantly
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Oscarsson is not the only scholar who has noted this feeble state of affairs in Swedish party research. Olof
Petersson (1993:125) states that “the knowledge of decision-making and member democracy within the parties …
has large gaps” and Jan Teorell (1998:19) says that “the situation with regard to knowledge, especially about internal
decision-making processes in our parties, is insufficient” [author’s translation] (see also Johansson 2005).
An example of such empirical research in Sweden is Jessika Wide’s (2006) doctoral thesis, in which she argues that
the representation of women in elected bodies is determined by the interaction of actors, institutions and structures.
The number of foreign citizens who do not have the right to vote (and are thus unelectable) varies of time and is
related to inward migration to Sweden. In the 2010 election, the share of Swedish residents over 18 years of age who
did not have the right to vote (and were thus unelectable) amounted to 3 per cent.
In addition, there is reason to believe that this figure might be higher if the survey had included people who are 75
years of age and older, and if there had been no nonresponse. The latter is especially interesting in the regard because
one can assume that persons who do not want to participate in this survey are not as interesting in taking on such
What can we find as possible explanations for parties’ perceived recruitment problems, when there appears to be
no reason to believe that interest in taking office has decreased over time? At least hypotheses come to mind. The
first is related to a norm that has emerged on the municipal level – where the elected officials believe that they
represent their party first. This norm dictates that officials no not act based on their own will or voter opinion (cf.
Bäck 2000). Thus one can imagine that the parties have become increasingly selective in their recruitment of
presumptive candidates for office and that they are primarily interested in placing party-loyal individuals on the
ballot. The second hypothesis is based on the argument that citizens’ interest in serving surely has not changed, but
that in reality this interest is an illusion. The prerequisite for taking on a commission of trust is active participation in
a political party – something that citizens clearly have less enthusiasm for than previously, as evidenced by decreasing
membership (Petersson 2005) and the fact that citizens are decreasingly interested in supporting individual political
parties and their platforms.
This argument, however, is based on the assumption that the surplus of willing participants is evenly distributed
throughout the country and the various political parties. It is doubtful whether this assumption is a reasonable one.
Smaller municipalities have a smaller group of willing participants from which they can select candidates, whereas it
is possible that many of the larger municipalities have an excess of willing party members.
The process of participation thus appears to influence individuals’ willingness to take office. In a similar vein,
McCulloch (1990) asserts that it is important to distinguish between the questions “why do people want to join
political parties?” and “why do people want to take office?”; the answers are likely very different.