TIME Travel

Europe’s 13 Best Winter Getaways

Pamporovo, Bulgaria
Villa Gella, Pamporovo, Bulgaria chicretreats.com

High design and haute cuisine meet crackling fires and snow-covered vistas in these European winter destinations

Europeans have dreamt up many definitions of cozy. Denmark has hygge, a concept that evokes “coziness when relaxing with good friends.” Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have gemütlich, which translates to “comfortably homey.” And Bulgaria has its уют, which means “snug.”

In other words, when the temperature drops, there’s a special appeal to hightailing it to Europe, where the art form of coziness has been perfected over the course of a few thousand winters. From the Ardennes to the Alps, woodsy retreats with crackling fireplaces, steamy thermal baths with pine-scented steam rooms, and wood-paneled inns where bubbling pots of fondue and shots of schnapps have long warmed locals and propelled many travelers to cross an ocean for a taste.

Still, the concept of a European winter getaway is changing. Seaside towns and off-season resort areas are seeing an uptick of visitors who come for digital detoxes and crowd-free retreats that can cost a quarter as much as a ski weekend. Sagres, in Portugal, for instance, is experiencing an increase in visitors, namely golfers seeking a bit of cool January sun and surfers coming for the winter swells. Croatia’s Istrian coast, meanwhile, attracts flocks of Zagreb creative types thanks to the significant off-season savings at its seaside and design-forward hotels.

Find out why there’s no winter like a European winter—especially in these towns.

Åre, Sweden

With its snow-covered peaks, café-lined town square, and red-hot après-ski scene, this mountain resort in northern Sweden is the Aspen of Scandinavia. There are more than 100 powdery ski runs, or you can navigate the slopes by snowmobile or dogsled: Explore Åre and Camp Åre are two top outfitters that can arrange tours. After dark, a lively crowd congregates over pints of Swedish Brekeriet beer at Hotel Fjällgården, where DJs keep the place thumping late into the night. For a quiet evening, curl up with a mug of glogg in one of the candlelit nooks at Thyras Salong, in the Tott Hotel. A five-minute walk away, chef Markus Aujalays runs Fjällpuben, a cozy restaurant with a farmhouse feel that serves dishes like tender elk carpaccio with currants and pickled beets. You’ll find several sophisticated hotels in town, but for a true northern adventure, consider spending a night at Igloo Åre, where the beds are made of packed snow covered in plush sleeping bags and reindeer skins, and private guides lead early morning snowshoe hikes. If the thought of ice blocks leaves you cold, there’s the new wood- and-glass Copperhill Mountain Lodge by American architect Peter Bohlin, a high-design ski-in, ski-out chalet with huge stone fireplaces, furnishings by the likes of Tom Dixon and Patricia Urquiola, and spa “tee-pees” that pay homage to the region’s indigenous Sami tribe. Book a Samezen massage, which uses warm stones and plant extracts, then take in the mountain views from a hot-spring-fed pool. —Ingrid K. Williams

Vals, Switzerland

You don’t come to this tiny village in the Swiss Alps to ski. Instead of perfectly groomed pistes, you’ll find a wonderland for design buffs. Built from sparkling gray blocks of Vals quartzite, Pritzker Prize winner Peter Zumthor’s austerely beautiful Therme Vals houses a warren of steamy hammams and flower-strewn pools. Last fall, the on-site hotel was rebranded as the 7132 Hotel, with furniture by Fritz Hansen and Eero Saarinen, a restaurant that serves dishes like Öra salmon with beets and spinach, and new rooftop suites designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. If your taste tends toward fewer hard surfaces and right angles, the four-room Brücke 49 embodies the distinctive Danish ethos of hygge, or coziness, but with some Midcentury-inspired flair: Finn Juhl chairs, 1960s Le Klint lamps, Vola showers, and William Morris wallpaper. Do as the locals do and earn your fondue with a 45-minute hike from the hotel along farm roads to Restaurant Ganni, an 18th-century timber mountain lodge. After a pot of silky cheese spiked with ginger, porcini, or traditional kirsch, throw back avieille prune (cask-aged plum brandy) digestif to fortify you for the walk back down. —Adam H. Graham

Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Jutting west into the North Atlantic Ocean, the Snæfellsnes peninsula is Iceland at its most stunning: moss-blanketed lava fields, misty fjords surrounded by craggy cliffs, and a towering volcano crowned with a glacier that dates back to the Ice Age. Do it as a road trip, starting with a night at the fire-engine-red Hotel Egilsen, in the tiny fishing town of Stykkisholmur. The inn’s 10 cozy rooms have a New England vibe, decorated as they are in light blues and greens, and original sketches of local landmarks by Icelandic artist Tolli line the walls. Across the street, Narfeyrarstofa, with its doilies and lace curtains, may look like someone’s grandmother’s house, but the restaurant serves the best lamb stew in town. It’s about an 80-mile drive around the tip of the peninsula—past waterfalls and golden beaches—to Hotel Búðir, the region’s game-changing property. The 17th-century trading post turned 28-room lodge is a destination in itself, with views of the Snæfell glacier or bay from every window, sitting areas with deep leather sofas and scores of old National Geographics to flip through, and a lobby bar with one of the country’s largest whiskey collections. If you’re looking to knock the northern lights off your bucket list, you’re in luck: an overnight concierge will wake you up for the show. —Brooke Porter Katz

The Cotswolds, Cheltenham

Once a popular spa getaway for well-heeled Londoners, Cheltenham fell out of favor with the rise of its trendier neighbors Daylesford and Chipping Norton. But with the opening of No. 38 The Park, the historic town in the northern Cotswolds is back in the spotlight. The brainchild of Sam and Georgie Pearman, the Regency building has 13 bedrooms, elegantly done with reclaimed-wood tables, freestanding Victorian bathtubs, and David Hockney prints. For dinner, make your way to sister property No. 131, where locals gather in a buzzy, low-lit dining room for regionally sourced dishes. Beyond the hotel, there’s plenty to explore, including the housewares and antiques shops in the neighborhoods of Montpelier and Suffolk. Don’t miss Guild at 51, full of handmade textiles and silverwork. Or tour the recently renovated Wilson, an art space showcasing both British Arts and Crafts and emerging artists. For lunch, Purslane serves a standout Cornish pollack with wood-roasted celeriac and chanterelles; come nighttime, it’s all about Daffodil, an Art Deco–style restaurant and bar known for its martinis and live jazz. —Sarah Miller

Courchevel, France

Bernard Arnault, the CEO of LVMH, is not known for taking foolish risks. So when he decided to give the hotel business a try with the ultra-luxe Cheval Blanc Courchevel, he set his sights on Courchevel’s most glamorous zip code, Le Jardin Alpin. Its north-facing slopes are among the best, its network of ski lifts the most efficient, and its habitués the most monied in all of Europe. With Arnault’s imprimatur and designer Sybille de Margerie’s bright, futuristic interiors, the property was a big- enough deal to lure chef Yannick Alléno from Paris’s Michelin three- starred Le Meurice to open Le 1947, where traditional French dishes get a modern spin. Just up the mountain,L’Apogée Courchevel bears the dual stamp of Parisian designers India Mahdavi and Joseph Dirand. The 55 timbered rooms and suites are surprisingly casual, decorated in a burgundy, green, and gingham palette, while the two chalets have log fires, perfect for curling up beside after a long day on the mountain. Courchevel’s equally polished town center is lined with high-end boutiques, including Isabel Marant and Ski Dior, and the bakery Maison Braissand is an essential stop for its buttery pain au chocolat. —Alexandra Marshall

Read the full list HERE.

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TIME Travel

These Are the Best Places to See the Northern Lights

Fairbanks, Alaska
Fairbanks, Alaska Sherman Hogue/Explore Fairbanks

Find out where to witness the aurora borealis, with reindeer sleigh rides, ice hotels, and hot springs included

At Finland’s Kakslauttanen Resort, you don’t even need to get out of bed to catch the northern lights. Gaze up through your glass-domed igloo, and you’ll drift off to sleep as emerald green, fuchsia, and indigo streaks light up the night sky.

North of the Arctic Circle in the vast Finnish Lapland, surrounded by towering pines, it’s a surreally beautiful place to experience the aurora borealis, which has been confounding and delighting observers for centuries. Towns across Scandinavia, Alaska, and Canada market the lights as the main attraction, offering experiences for adventurers and luxury travelers alike. It’s so ingrained in Norwegian culture that the government recently opted to add the neon lights to its passports by way of a black light feature.

There’s never been a better time to set out to view the spectacle. Not only are we in the midst of a solar maximum (when aurora activity is at its peak), but the United Nations also named 2015 the International Year of Light, making dark sky preservation and global awareness of light pollution priorities.

Before the scientific cause of the lights—charged particles from the sun colliding with atoms in Earth’s atmosphere—was understood, local legends provided all sorts of creative explanations. The Inuit people of Greenland, for one, believed the lights came from spirits of ancestors playing soccer with the skull of a walrus. These days, you can rough it like a musher in Greenland, staying in hunting cabins and tending to the dogs, all while hunting the aurora on World of Greenland’s three-day dogsled expedition in Kangerlussuaq.

In Churchill, Canada, you can watch the lights dance over a family of polar bears from the comfort of your mobile sleeper car. There’s even a chance to see the northern lights in the continental U.S.: Pennsylvania’s Cherry Springs State Park reported four sightings in 2014 and holds the highest designation given to a dark sky site, from the International Dark-Sky Association, meaning that light pollution in the area is minimal and the full array of sky phenomena (the aurora, faint meteors, zodiacal light) can be seen clearly from the park.

If 2015 is the year you vow to see nature’s light show for yourself, set your sights on these destinations.

Sweden

Every year, about 100 artisans meticulously create the Icehotel structure anew, using ice harvested from the Torne River here in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle. Guests choose from a simple snow or ice room, a suite with intricate carvings, or the Northern Lights suite, complete with a light installation mimicking the natural wonder. When you’re ready for the real thing, set out on the hotel’s northern lights horseback tour or plan an excursion to the nearby Aurora Sky Station in Abisko(open November 30 through March 30). Located 900 meters above sea level, the station experiences little light or noise pollution—optimal conditions for viewing the northern lights. Ascend via chairlift, and indulge in a four-course meal before a guided tour and an evening of sky-watching.

Fairbanks, AK

The bitter cold that often comes with witnessing the northern lights can be a real deterrent. Enter Chena Hot Springs Resort, with its warm, mineral-rich healing waters. The resort’s adults-only Rock Lake offers the opportunity to enjoy a light show along with a soak. Fairbanks lies directly beneath a band of aurora activity, meaning from August to May, the town regularly experiences a celestial display of green, yellow, and purple. The phenomenon is most frequently seen between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., but the early-to-bed crowd need not worry. Guests staying in Moose Lodge rooms can request to receive a phone call when the aurora is spotted in the sky.

Tromsø, Norway

Prefer your light show with a soundtrack? Turn up in Tromsø for the annual Northern Lights festival (in 2015, January 24–February 1). The nine-day celebration features more than 40 jazz, classical, dance, and electronic performances, with some events taking place outside, potentially under the aurora borealis. Stop in Emma’s Restaurant to refuel on fresh fish and local delicacies like reindeer meat, then make your way to the planetarium for some perspective on the science behind the lights. Tromsø is just north of the Arctic Circle, near the magnetic north pole, so it sees the lights regularly between October and mid-March.

Finland

The northern lights make an appearance over Finland about 200 nights per year. Doze off watching the dancing display from within a glass igloo at romantic Kakslauttanen Resort, 155 miles north of the Arctic Circle. And the next night, hunt for the aurora on a reindeer-drawn sleigh ride through the surrounding wilderness. In addition to two- and four-person igloos, accommodations also include a nearly century-old traditional log house with its own sauna. Hotel Iso-Syöte, on Finland’s southernmost mountain, is slightly more accessible and offers a similar glass-roofed experience in the Eagle’s View suite, along with snowshoeing, ice fishing, and overnight stays in traditional snow igloos, outfitted with reindeer pelts and specially designed sleeping bags.

Greenland

With minimal light pollution and near-perfect visibility in some places, Greenland provides exceptional odds for viewing milky-green lights. A three- or four-night stay during the aurora season (September to the beginning of April) practically guarantees a sighting. Settle into the Hotel Arctic’s igloos on the edge of the Ilulissat Icefjord; double rooms are outfitted with electric heating, TVs, and a small bathroom, with skylights and expansive front windows so that you can soak up the night sky from your bed. If roughing it is more your style, plan a trip to Kangerlussuaq. This former U.S. military base near the airport counts northern lights sightings 300 nights per year, and serves as one end of the popular three-day World of Greenland dogsled expedition. Participants sleep in hunting cabins, take care of the dogs, and experience the wilderness firsthand.

Read the full list HERE.

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TIME

The Quirky Ways 7 Other Countries Celebrate Christmas

JAPAN-JAL-KFC
Japan Airlines President Yoshiharu Ueki (2nd L) and Masao Watanabe (2nd R), President of Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan pose with a statue of Colonel Sanders (C) wearing a Santa Claus costume during a photo session after a press conference to announce their new "AIR Kentucky Fried Chicken" in-flight fried chicken service, in Tokyo on November 28, 2012. KAZUHIRO NOGI—AFP/Getty Images

Italy's Epiphany witch, Iceland's "Yule cat" and why Japan eats KFC at Christmas

If you’ve ever considered it odd that U.S. Christmas traditions revolve around indoor trees (real and plastic) and a plump, bearded man sliding down chimneys… you’re not wrong.

In fact, our conception of Santa Claus can largely be attributed to a single 1828 poem, Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which enshrined the nation’s image of Santa–with his “little round belly” and a beard “as white as the snow–and propagated the idea of him coming through chimneys to deliver gifts in stockings, now common knowledge to children across the country. It’s just one of the ways our Christmas traditions can be traced to quirks of history.

But odd and seemingly arbitrary Christmas traditions are not only the purview of the United States. Around the world, in countries that are majority Christian and countries that are majority not, unique practices emerge as the holiday approaches.

Here’s a look at some of the notable and sometimes bizarre Christmas time traditions around the world.

Japan

The vast majority of Japan is not Christian, but one Christmas tradition persists: a trip to KFC. Since a “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) marketing campaign was launched in Japan in 1974, the American chain has become a popular Christmas Eve hotspot. The campaign worked so well that sales that night typically outpace those of the rest of the year. Some people even order their bucket of fried chicken ahead, to beat the Christmas crowds.

Sweden

In the Swedish town of Gävle, it is traditional to construct a 30-foot tall giant straw “Yule Goat” — a Christmas symbol in Sweden for centuries. And it’s tradition for some meddling kids (actually, unidentified criminal arsonists) to try to burn it down. According to the Gävle tourist board, the goat has been burned down 25 times since its construction became an annual tradition in 1966. So far this year, the Gävle goat is safely standing, as you can see on this webcam. You can also follow him on Twitter.

India

Christians comprise roughly 2 percent of the Indian population, or 24 million people. But Christmas trees in the warm climate are in short supply, so in lieu of the evergreen conifer many Indian families will adorn banana or mango trees with ornaments. In Christian communities, which are mostly in southern India, people put oil-lamps of clay on their flat roof-tops to celebrate the season.

Ukraine

Americans would recognize the Christmas trees decorated in Ukraine, as they’re similar to the traditional, Western fir tree, but Ukrainians will sometimes decorate them with an unlikely ornament: spider webs. The tradition stems from a Ukrainian folk tale, about a widow whose family was so poor they had no money to decorate their tree. Instead, a spider span a web around it on Christmas Eve — and when the first light of day hit it on Christmas morning, it turned into a beautiful web of gold and silver.

Iceland

Beware the Yule Cat! This traditional Christmas fiend is said to terrorize the Icelandic countryside, particularly targeting those who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas. But the frightening festive feline is just one of Iceland’s “Christmas fiends”, who include Grýla, a three-headed ogress with goat-horns. The creature’s sons, the “Yule Lads”, hand out Christmas gifts to children who have been good (and rotten vegetables to those who have been bad).

Italy

Only in Italy do the witches bring gifts to children. That’s La Befana, a broom-flying, kindly witch who effectively takes over from Santa–in Italy, “Babbo Natale”—about two weeks after Christmas on Epiphany to deliver gifts to the good, and ash to the bad. Though the witch has her roots in the pre-Christian pagan tradition, she features in some tellings of the Christmas story in Italy — as an old woman who refuses to give the Wise Men directions to Bethlehem because she is too busy cleaning, and is forced to ride a broomstick for eternity as a result. The town of Le Marche, in northwestern Italy, celebrates her coming every January.

Czech Republic

Save the ham. In the Czech Republic, carp is the mainstay of a Christmas dinner. The tradition of eating carp on Christian holidays dates back as far as the 11th century, when Bohemian monasteries would construct fishponds for the express use of farming the fish. Until recently, Czech families would buy a live carp in the weeks before Christmas and keep it in a bathtub, before slaughtering it on Christmas Eve ready for the following day’s meal. Many Czechs still take part in the festive superstition of saving a dried (and cleaned) scale from the Christmas fish in their wallets for luck over the coming year.

READ NEXT Here’s Where to Watch Your Favorite Christmas Movies

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TIME Web

Pirate Bay Goes Offline After a Raid in Sweden

One of the co-founders of the file-sharing website, The Pirate Bay, Peter Sunde, talking to journalists outside the Swedish Appeal Court in Stockholm in 2010.
One of the co-founders of the file-sharing website, The Pirate Bay, Peter Sunde, talking to journalists outside the Swedish Appeal Court in Stockholm in 2010. Jonathan Nackstrand—AFP/Getty Images

The site, as usual, was back up within hours at a new address

Pirate Bay, the hard-to-kill illegal file-sharing portal, was taken offline on Tuesday, following a police raid on a server room in Stockholm.

The torrent site reappeared just hours later, at a new address hosted in Costa Rica, The Verge reports. Torrentfreak.com originally reported the website’s takedown.

“There has been a crackdown on a server room in Greater Stockholm,” read a statement from Paul Pintér, Stockholm police’s national coordinator for IP enforcement. “This is in connection with violations of copyright law.”

Pirate Bay has played a whack-a-mole game with authorities for years, disappearing only to reappear with a different domain name. Yet it had been consistently online for the past few months, appearing to have dogged authorities and settled into a permanent home.

But if the website has proved hard to nix, its founders have been easier catches for authorities. Co-founder Gottfrid Svartholm was in October sentenced to three and a half years in prison on an earlier copyright-related charge, and four other co-founders were also arrested this year.

[The Verge]

TIME portfolio

Face to Face with Europe’s Military Cadets

Paolo Verzone's newest book saw him travel to 20 military academies from Portugal to Spain over five years to photograph cadets.

One of the most striking things, Paolo Verzone says, about photographing military cadets is that they really know how to pose. In fact, they are so good at it that sometimes, when he was taking their pictures, he wondered if they would ever stop.

“They are able to stay still for four seconds without moving,” Verzone adds. “That’s a long time, and it was pretty amazing. I actually had to light them less, it was my secret photographic weapon.”

It’s understandable, he continues, because from very early on in their careers many are trained to remain still during drills. Military personnel make even more capable subjects than models, apparently. Who knew?

This discovery came as Verzone was working on his newest book Cadets. The project stemmed from a short assignment for an Italian magazine in 2009 (for which he was sent to photograph French military personnel), and saw him travel to 20 military academies from Portugal to Spain over five years. The aim? To understand the military “soul” of European countries.

“I wanted to see these places, the [military bases] in these countries, many of which were once fighting against each other,” Verzone says.

It wasn’t always easy: Not every military academy replied to his requests. And even when they did, it took a long time for him, as a civilian, to get permission to go inside. And even then he was rarely left alone. But it was something he wouldn’t give up on.

“I wanted to see who these young people are. To go beyond the idea of the one who gets in the army and stays there for life,” he says. “Now, military academies are very different places; you can get a complete degree, and then, for many, you can get out. Times are changing.”

Paolo Verzone is a Paris-based photographer who has been published in TIME, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Independent, and The Guardian among others. Cadets is available now.

Richard Conway is reporter/producer for TIME LightBox.

Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s Deputy Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise.

TIME sweden

Sweden Is Holding Snap Elections for the First Time Since 1958

Sweden Government Defeat
Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven talks at a press conference at Stockholm, Sweden, Tuesday Dec. 2, 2014. Pontus Lundahl—AP

Extraordinary measure comes after anti-immigrant party derails the Prime Minister's budget proposal

Sweden’s new Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has called for snap elections, the country’s first in nearly 60 years, after a populist anti-immigration party trashed his attempt to build support for his first budget proposal.

The decision was announced Wednesday, a day after the Sweden Democrat party chose to back the opposition’s alternative budget, a move almost unheard of in a country long known to seek broad, political consensus, Wall Street Journal reports.

Lofven’s minority government, formed between his Swedish Social Democratic Party and the Green Party after the election on Sept. 14, was weak from the start. He has since reached out to center-right parties to find support for his budget, but the Sweden Democrats, who placed third in the election, were systematically shut out of the discussions.

This week, the Sweden Democrats said they planned to derail future budget proposals that continue current spending on immigration.

The snap election will be held on March 22.

[WSJ]

TIME sweden

Julian Assange’s Appeal is Rejected by Swedish Court

Julian Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks to the media inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London on June 14, 2013. Anthony Devlin—AFP/Getty Images

Assange still faces extradition to Sweden if he leaves London's Ecuadorian embassy

The Swedish Court of Appeal has upheld an arrest warrant against the Australian Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, who is wanted for questioning regarding allegations of sexual assault and rape in Sweden.

Assange, who denies the allegations, has sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than two years in order to avoid extradition. A Swedish prosecutor first issued an arrest warrant for Assange in 2010 but Assange had appealed for this order to be revoked.

The Court explained its reasoning in upholding the detention order in a statement, saying that “Julian Assange is suspected of crimes of a relatively serious nature.”

“There is a great risk that he will flee and thereby evade legal proceedings if the detention order is set aside,” the court argued, but also noted that Sweden’s investigation into Assange remains deadlocked.

[Guardian]

TIME Video Games

Sweden Considers Special Labels for Sexist Video Games

Paris Games Week : Press Preview
Gamers play video games with the PS4 consoles of PlayStation during the International Games Week on Oct. 29, 2014, in Paris Chesnot—Getty Images

A video-game trade group, inspired by the Bechdel Test, will study games' portrayals of women

A government-funded innovation agency in Sweden is considering creating specials label for video games based on whether or not the games’ portrayals of women are sexist.

Inspired by the Bechdel Test, Vinnova is paying the Swedish video-game trade organization Dataspelsbranchen approximately $36,672 to study the industry’s female characters, the Local reports.

“I do not know of any other project in the world asking this question, and of course, we want Sweden to be a beacon in this area,” said project manager Anton Albiin, who notes that it has not been determined whether all Swedish games would be graded on their treatment of women or whether only games with positive portrayals would receive special labels.

Only 16% of people working in Sweden’s growing, $935 million gaming industry are women, according to Dataspelsbranchen. (In 2013, the Boston Globe reported that in the U.S. women made up 3% of video-game programmers and 11% of designers.)

“Of course games can be about fantasy, but they can be so much more than this,” Albiin said. “They can also be a form of cultural expression — reflecting society or the society we are hoping for. Games can help us to create more diverse workplaces and can even change the way we think about thing.”

[The Local]

TIME sweden

Sweden Confirms Foreign Submarine Was in Its Waters

SWEDEN-MILITARY-SUBMARINE-RUSSIA-ESPIONAGE
The Swedish minesweeper HMS Kullen and a guard boat in Namdo Bay on their fifth day of searching for a suspected foreign vessel in the Stockholm archipelago on October 21, 2014. FREDRIK SANDBERG—AFP/Getty Images

Says it will defend its territory "with all available means"

The hunt for a rogue submarine in Sweden’s waters last month has now confirmed that a foreign vessel was there, the Swedish government said Friday, but the origin of the ship still remains unclear.

Swedish intelligence agents detected distress signals on Oct. 16, and on Oct. 17 civilians saw an object that appeared to be a submarine in the water east of Stockholm. The following day, Sweden reportedly intercepted transmits from those waters to the Russian town of Kalingrad, leading to suspicions that the vessel may have been Russian. Russia denied this claim during the search.

“The Swedish defense forces can confirm that a mini u-boat violated Swedish territory,” a Swedish military commander told reporters, according to AFP. “This is a serious and unacceptable violation by a foreign power.”

Prime Minister Stefan Loefven warned that such incursions will not be tolerated. “We will defend our territorial integrity with all available means,” he said.

[AFP]

TIME politics

The Swedish Way To Boost Voter Turnout

voters
Getty Images

Whether you’re in high-turnout Sweden or low-turnout L.A., the task of getting people to participate must be a constant, year-round focus of attention, not just an issue of concern at election time

I did not receive the warmest welcome from my colleagues four years ago, at my very first meeting of the Falun Election Commission. In fact, most members of the authority in Falun, the Swedish city of 57,000 where I live, were surprised I had called a meeting at all.

“What is this all about?” a colleague asked me. “The next elections are in four years and we had just an election with a great turnout. The only thing we are elected to do is administer the next elections.”

My colleague had a point. The Swedish law makes clear the election commission’s job is to administer election, full stop. And participation in the 2010 local, regional and national elections here in Sweden—which are held together at the same time—was terrific. Turnout of those eligible to vote was 82 percent.

That may sound like another world entirely to people in the U.S. where I’m visiting this week in part to observe preparations for Tuesday’s elections. I know that many places in the country, including California, where I’m writing this, are experiencing record low turnout.

But I also know this: Whether you’re in high-turnout Sweden or low-turnout L.A., the task of getting people to participate must be a constant, year-round focus of attention, not just an issue of concern at election time. Conventional wisdom is that turnout is beyond the control of election organizers. I’d suggest—after spending the past four years trying to raise turnout for the 2014 elections—that election administrators can make the difference.

I’m highly sensitive to the issues of participation because democracy is such a big part of my life. I’m a professional journalist for Swiss radio who covers a lot of elections around Europe and the world. I’ve been an official observer of elections (my co-observer President Jimmy Carter failed to show up when we were paired recently as observers of Taiwanese elections). And I vote in two different countries because I’m a citizen of Sweden and Switzerland, as well as the European Union.

In all these contexts, I’ve seen that the places with the greatest participation do not necessarily have the most media coverage and campaign materials demanding that people show up at the polls. The places that improve participation tend to be places where regular people connect with politics and make collective decisions all the time, not just in election season.

How to create these connections? You need to strengthen existing institutions—and build new ones—that encourage active citizenship year-round.

In Falun, I wanted to take advantage of new initiative and referendum rights in Sweden and Europe to try to boost participation. After that first uncomfortable meeting, my colleagues decided that the role of our local government was to make sure that people understood these new rights and how to use them.

But it wasn’t enough to just notify people. My colleagues on the commission insisted on a test of our work in what came to be called a “supersized participation challenge.” All of our work between elections would be measured by whether or not voting participation increased.

One of our first ideas was to develop and distribute a “Democracy Passport” to every citizen; We made an extra effort to get it into the hands of first-time voters. The passport is the size and shape of a national passport, and it described all the political powers that Falun citizens have and all the forums where they have the right to weigh in—at the city, state, country and European Union level. The passport explains which levels of government do what, as well as what you can do to influence the government.

We also opened a “Democracy Center” at our public library, offering a free public space for democratic information, education, and dialogue. We hired a full-time “Democracy Navigator,” whose job was to assist individual citizens and groups to make their voices heard. Finally we started to renew the city’s online services, incorporating modern forms of transparency and citizen interaction.

We did all of this with the agreement of each of the nine political parties in the city parliament, which consists of 61 members. Our message was a paradigm shift: We need to move away from the idea that citizens are just consumers of political programs and parties and start seeing them as direct participants in the community. In this, we had a distinct advantage: Sweden’s long history of democracy has generated significant trust in public institutions.

After three years of work (in which I also chaired another public body, the Falun Democracy Council, which did related work), we reached the “months of truth” this year. Elections for the European Union parliament were held in May, and then the joint elections for local, regional and national Swedish parliaments were held in September.

Determined to boost participation, we made use of our very generous voting regulations—we permit early voting, voting by mail, and even second voting. What’s second voting? People who voted early can go to a polling station on Election Day and change their vote in person; When people do this, the vote in the polling station is accepted and the advance vote declared invalid.

We also have automatic voter registration—you don’t have to sign up yourself. And we have been aggressive in making sure that voters who were not born in Sweden but have lived here for three years (non-citizens with residency can vote in local and regional elections) are on the rolls. We organized meetings with Somali-Swedish women, translated the Democracy Passport into Arabic, and invited new voters to participate in walks we organized and staffed with interpreters to the offices of elected officials, political parties and interest groups.

In the end, we met the supersizing challenge. At the European elections in May—elections where turnout has been lowest in Sweden—we boosted turnout from 45 percent to 54 percent, among the highest in Sweden.

And in the mid-September elections, we went from 82 percent to 87 percent. That’s healthy, of course. But it’s not good enough. We’re already planning for the next elections, and thinking about how to invest more in our democratic infrastructure.

Bruno Kaufmann, a journalist and election commissioner in Falun, Sweden, is founder of People2Power, a publication on democracy. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

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