Stefan Wallin and his one big family
Swedish People's Party leader does not want to be a "cellphone dad"
By Jakke Holvas
The button that Stefan Wallin, the new chairman of the Swedish People's Party, wears on his lapel reads Små barns pappa - "Father of small children".
The party leader and future Minister of the Environment openly speaks on behalf of the family, and promises publicly that he plans to spend time with his daughters Stella and Freja, aged six and four.
How refreshing, many sighed. The 39-year-old Wallin finally represents a new political culture! But wait a minute: might he be just playing a political game with women's cards?
Time will tell. In any case the equation is a difficult one for a politician with a family: leading a political party while finding time to play with the children. Wallin says that in the reality that is contained in speeches at annual meetings, people will wax eloquent about how important the children are. However, the values are put to the test when there is a pile of invitations on the table to parties and sauna evenings.
"But not all such events carry the universe forward", Wallin observes.
He plans to stick to his line. "Politics is never so important that it would be worth sacrificing the family's free time in order to speak on behalf of families."
Naturally, Wallin is not the only male politician to talk about family priorities. Esko Aho tried to do the same in the Presidential elections in 2000. He did not actually succeed very well at that time: Aho came out as a man supporting family values, but he was labelled a distant mobile phone father.
Male politicians are easily told that they are riding on a media-sexy topic, even though there is apparently a clear demand for speeches on families.
National Coalition Party MP Hanna-Leena Hemming, a mother of five, feels that talking about children is partially a game. It brings to a man the right kind of softness. On the other hand, a woman's credibility can suffer if she overemphasises her maternity. "If you want to be thought of as a capable woman, don't talk about children", Hemming says.
Swedish People's Party MP Eva Biaudet, a single mother of four, agrees. "A woman often hears that she cannot be given a task because she has children. But a man with a baby in his lap - you can sell just about anything with that!"
When Biaudet took maternity leave from Parliament in 1991, she was one of the pioneers among political women to do so. Now it could be the fathers' turn, and Biaudet feels that Wallin's move is a good one. "This is male emancipation. I have been waiting for something like this for a long time."
Hemming is pleased that Wallin is willing to continue what women have been doing for years.
Wallin is not afraid of being placed under a magnifying glass.
"The family is the most important thing for me."
If Wallin's family were to get more children, he would take the statutory 18-day paternity leave, just like Paavo Lipponen did as Prime Minister - and Lipponen got a Spanish gender equality prize for his progressive move.
"We women sure laughed then - six whole work days of paternity leave, and he gets a prize", Biaudet says.
But families are important for the whole party. In its recent family policy statement, the Swedish People's Party wants to extend the parental allowance period from the present nine months to twelve. The party also proposes that grandparents should be entitled to stay home from work if they are taking care of a grandchild who is ill.
However, Hemming of the National Coalition Party notes that emphasising the importance of children is typical politics for a small party. "The Greens also need to take that line", she says. "Such a large portion of their supporters are women that the implementation of politics needs to be extended to the women's sector."
Then there is the question of what kind of an effect prioritising the family will have on a politician's work. Won't the results be worse if the politician - or any working person - stays at home taking care of the children?
"Naturally it is the spirit of the times that people should be at their workplaces all the time looking after their own interests", says Wallin, a political scientist who has worked in five ministries.
"The thinking is that the longer the light is on in the window, the better an employee the person is. But some lawyer friends of mine say that increasing numbers of young lawyers will get up at a meeting at four in the afternoon and say that it is his turn to fetch the kids from day care. Initially the reactions were reportedly negative, but gradually people get used to that."
It's that simple.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 18.6.2006
Previously in HS International Edition:
Wallin overwhelming choice as new leader of Swedish People´s Party (12.6.2006)
JAKKE HOLVAS / Helsingin Sanomat