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How robust is Sweden's democracy? (Clue: not very)

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How robust is Sweden's democracy? (Clue: not very)
Sweden is set to hold its next election in September. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT
07:59 CEST+02:00
Sweden celebrates one century of democracy this year. But experts warn that the country's constitution may not be strong enough to handle anti-democratic tides. This is the latest edition of The Local's Sweden in Focus series.

One hundred years ago Sweden was on the brink of rebellion. Food shortages, acute hunger and a growing gap between rich and poor had sparked a series of strikes and violent riots across the country.

The crisis was eventually averted, and its most lasting legacy was the suffrage movement's victory. Men, and shortly thereafter women, won the universal right to vote. The country grew richer, the social gaps smaller.

These years mark the period when Sweden became a democracy. 

SWEDEN IN FOCUS: An in-depth look at what makes this place tick


Police and protesters clash outside the Royal Palace in Stockholm in 1917. The man with the cane is Hjalmar Branting, Sweden's first Social Democratic prime minister. Photo: Pressens Bild

Sweden's constitution is made up of four separate acts: the 1949 Freedom of the Press Act – older incarnations date back more than 250 years – the 1991 Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression, the 1810 Act of Succession regulating the monarchy, and the 1974 Instrument of Government.

The latter contains the rights and provisions most closely resembling other countries' constitutions.

"All public power in Sweden proceeds from the people," reads the first and most central paragraph in the Instrument of Government (Regeringsformen). "Swedish democracy is founded on the free formation of opinion and on universal and equal suffrage. It is realized through a representative and parliamentary form of government and through local self-government. Public power is exercised under the law."

Sweden is the third most democratic country in the world (beaten only by Nordic neighbours Norway and Iceland), according to the Economist's Democracy Index. But few realize that compared to many other countries, the constitutional protection of its democracy and human rights is in fact relatively weak.

Similarly to Sweden, Finland requires two parliamentary voting rounds separated by an election to change its constitution, but in Helsinki such a decision has to be taken by a supermajority. Meanwhile the constitutions of both Germany and Norway include outright bans on abolishing democracy.

In Sweden there is no such rule, and the constitution can be changed by a single majority in parliament with an election held in between. And all it takes is a snap election, without waiting out the four-year term.

So in theory, picture this: An anti-democratic government comes to power. It holds a majority or is at least supported by a majority in parliament, the Riksdag. It puts forward a proposal to dismantle the constitution, which gets voted through by more than 50 percent of the 349 members of parliament.

It then throws a snap election, wins again. Parliament votes anew. Democracy down.

In Sweden this could happen in less than a year and a half – without breaking a single law.

"There is no guarantee that democracy will remain stable and strong in the future," warn Olle Wästberg and Daniel Lindvall in their book 'The Rule of the People in a Time of Fear' ('Folkstyret i rädslans tid').

"The Nazis enjoyed great support in the last democratic election during the Weimar Republic. Mussolini's fascist party had significant popular support. Today's parties such as Golden Dawn, Jobbik, National Front, Alternative für Deutschland and Geert Wilders' Freedom Party all have democratically elected representatives in various parliaments. That does not mean that they have a democratic ideology," they write. "Democracy is a political system that can be abolished democratically."


Campaigners outside a polling station in Sweden in the parliamentary election of 1921. Photo: TT

Have Swedes become complacent?

"I think Sweden has faith in democratic majorities, because we do not have that history of fascism and anti-democracy. We have had a stable political majority and therefore we have also trusted the state to maintain democracy and protection of human rights," says Rebecca Adami, senior lecturer at Stockholm University and head of MR-stiftelsen, a foundation dedicated to promoting human rights in Sweden.

"But think about the fact that democracy and human rights are something we have all worked for years to create and it is something that could be voted out by a sitting majority with anti-democratic values. Don't take it for granted, because we have already seen such tendencies in other countries."

In the US, President Donald Trump struggled to get his executive so-called "travel ban" in place, with various courts blocking the original text. In Sweden, courts do not wield as extensive powers, and there is no constitutional court that ensures new laws are in line with the constitution. Instead, the Council of Legislation (Lagrådet) is tasked with examining proposals, but its judicial preview is not binding. Even today, governments remarkably often choose not to adhere to its recommendations.

In Hungary, Viktor Orban only weeks ago won a sweeping victory in elections, securing two-thirds of seats in parliament. The New York Times described his strategy as "transforming this former Soviet bloc member from a vibrant democracy into a semi-autocratic state under one political party's control".

Both Hungary's and Poland's governments have increasingly tightened their holds on courts, public service and schools. Similar moves may be unthinkable, but in theory entirely possible in Sweden, where the government appoints the Supreme Court as well as the National Courts Administration. Most Swedish universities are state agencies and the school curriculum is set by the government.

This works, because the state tends to play by the rules. Sweden has a strong tradition of social regulations and consensus-building which also governs its political life. 

READ ALSO: Is Sweden's openness under threat or is it stronger than ever?

Stellan Gärde, legal advisor on MR-stiftelsen's board, and a laywer with years of experience working in Swedish courts, European courts and the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva, explains:

"Sweden's 'power of the people' has had a strong and democratic tradition, for example there's the labour movement, or the fact that Sweden has lots of organizations where people make democratic decisions every day: football clubs, tennis clubs, foundations and what have you. If someone walks in and tries to take over, people question it, say 'hey, what are you doing, don't you know we have to sit down and talk first'. So there is a fundamental sense of democracy which is quite strong and quite old."

"We have been lucky in Sweden in that we have had a cadre of leaders all the way back through to the 1930s who have been decent and non-corrupt. They have lived a fairly normal life without flashy cars and houses, without bragging about their amazing success; they've been living in their radhus (terraced homes) in the suburbs. There has been a sense that they're good people," says Gärde.


The Swedish parliament. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

But if there is anything we have seen in recent years, it is that not all leaders play by the book. Populist or anti-democratic parties in particular don't always follow the law and they certainly do not follow social rules. 

So in a game where the stakes are high, would Sweden have any cards to play?

"Obama gave a really nice speech when he left. He said that no matter who comes to power it is important to respect the basic rules of the game. He was worried that they would not be respected but that people would come to power with completely different motives. It's very important then that people feel that they are protected by the constitution, but that's not being talked about," says Adami.

Democracy campaigners often focus on two things: legal rules that secure democracy even during unstable times, and increased awareness and human rights discussions among the general public.

Wästberg and Lindvall were in charge of running a major government inquiry (presented in 2016) into how to strengthen Sweden's democracy. Few of the proposals have yet come to fruition, but some of the suggestions included a pilot project to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 in local elections and making it easier for individual citizens to put forward motions to parliament and local authorities.

Anything to ensure that the gap between voter and decision-makers remains as small as possible.

"Voters who feel powerless and want radical changes seem to have a tendency to behave rebelliously and self-destructively on election day. The stability and future of democracy thus require that citizens' political influence is widened and deepened," they warn in their book, published last year.


Stellan Gärde and Rebecca Adami. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

Adami and Gärde are hopeful about the future. They say people are shocked when they find out how quickly democracy could be abolished, but are pleased that more and more people are talking about it.

"It is important to increase the constitutional culture in Sweden. Take the US, where you refer to the constitution all the time. But if you ask people in Sweden what's in the constitution, no one really knows," says Adami. "And what human rights mean in Sweden. We have a very clear idea of what violations mean in other countries, but what would they look like here?"

"Every generation has to 'win' democracy. If you raise a generation of children and don't give them any education about democracy, they could end up changing an entire electoral system," adds Gärde.

They, and several other experts, are now pushing for Sweden to introduce regulations ensuring that the constitution can only be changed by a supermajority, and that democracy can never be outlawed.

In other words: Sweden's democracy may be strong, but its defences must be equally strong.

"It should be harder to dismantle that which took so long to build," says Adami. "One generation should not be able to vote away all future generations' access to all the rights we take for granted today."

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