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What are Sweden’s church elections and how do they work?

September 19th is the date of Sweden's Church Election, a surprising tradition in a largely secular country.

What are Sweden's church elections and how do they work?
Sweden's church elections use a very similar system to the parliamentary elections. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

The Lutheran Church of Sweden retains a special status in Sweden, even if church and state were officially separated in 2000.

Nevertheless, it’s Europe’s largest Lutheran denomination, and worldwide only Ethiopia and Tazmania have larger Lutheran church bodies. Headquarted in Uppsala and led by Antje Jackelén, Sweden’s first female archbishop, its main roles are offering church services including weddings, baptisms and funerals, but also offering support to members of its congregations and even aid overseas.

The contenders in the election are sometimes linked to political parties, with the Social Democrats currently the largest represented group and the Centre Party and Sweden Democrats also putting forward candidates. Some other groups are linked to certain political parties, such as the Christian Democrats in the Swedish Church, the Left in the Swedish Church, the Green Party in the Swedish Church, and the Free Liberals in the Swedish Church.

Other groups without any political party ties also field candidates, including the Non-partisans in Church of Sweden (Posk), which became the second largest group in the 2017 election.

One of the big questions is how church funds should be spent, but there are also debates on how the Church should be run. For example, the Christian Democrats are in favour of the introduction of Christian schools, the Left want to devote more funds to the Church’s social work supporting vulnerable parishioners, and some parties have also taken a clear stance on whether priests should be obliged to carry out marriages for same-sex couples.

Sweden’s church elections were modelled on national elections back at the time when it was a state church, and there are elections to the 249 seats of the Synod, as well as at the the diocesan and parish levels.

The elections take place every four years, just like Sweden’s general elections – although they run on different schedules. Even if they ended up scheduled for the same year, as looked possible this year when Sweden’s prime minister resigned, the two cannot be held on the same day due to rules that state elections must be carried out in a neutral way (värdeneutral in Swedish).

The other big difference between the two votes is that while Sweden has typically high voter turnouts for its parliamentary elections, the church elections usually see low turnouts. The previous vote saw only 19 percent of eligible voters head to the polls, which was still the highest turnout since 1934.

Around half the population has the right to vote, which requires being aged over 16 and a member of the Church. Up until 1996, newly born children were automatically made members unless their parents opted out, but this was changed to opt-in. 

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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

What’s the Swedish Christian Democrats’ abortion contract all about?

Ebba Busch, leader of Sweden's Christian Democrats on Monday presented an "abortion contract", which she wants all of Sweden's party leaders to sign. What's going on?

What's the Swedish Christian Democrats' abortion contract all about?

What’s happened? 

Ebba Busch, leader of Sweden’s Christian Democrat party, called a press conference on Monday in which she presented a document that she called “an abortion contract”, which was essentially a pledge to safeguard the right of women in Sweden to have an abortion.  

“There is room for signatures from all eight party leaders,” she said. “I have already signed on behalf of the Christian Democrats.” 

What does the so-called “abortion contract” say? 

The document itself is fairly uncontroversial.

It states simply that Sweden’s law on abortion dates back to 1974, and that it grants women the right to an abortion up until the 18th week of pregnancy, with women seeking abortions later in their pregnancy required to get permission from the National Board of Health and Welfare. 

“Those of us who have signed this document support Sweden’s abortion legislation and promise to defend it if it comes under attack from forces both within our country and from outside,” the document reads.  

Why have the Christian Democrats produced it? 

The decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade, and so allow US states to ban abortion has aroused strong feelings in Sweden, as elsewhere, and Busch is seeking to send a strong signal to distance her own Christian party from the US religious right. 

Abortion has been a recurring issue within the Christian Democrats with several politicians and party members critical of abortion. 

Lars Adaktusson, a Christian Democrat MP, was found by the Dagens Nyheter newspaper to have voted against abortion 22 times when he was a member of the European parliament. 

The party has also in the past campaigned for the right of midwives and other medical professionals who are ethically opposed to abortion not to have to take part in the procedure. 

So why aren’t all the other party leaders signing the document? 

Sweden’s governing Social Democrats, and their Green Party allies, dismissed the contract as a political gimmick designed to help the Christian Democrats distance themselves from elements of their own party critical of abortion. 

“It would perhaps be good if Ebba Busch did some homework within her own party to check that there’s 100 percent support for Sweden’s abortion legislation,” Magdalena Andersson, Sweden’s prime minister, said. “That feels like a more important measure than writing contracts between party leaders and trying to solve it that way.”  

In a debate on Swedish television, Green Party leader Märta Stenevi argued that it would be much more significant if Busch’s own MPs and MEPs all signed the document. 

It wasn’t other party leaders who needed to show commitment to abortion legislation, but “her own MPs, MEPs, and not least her proposed government partners in the Sweden Democrats and even some within the Moderate Party”. 

She said it made her “very very worried” to see that the Christian Democrats needed such a contract. “That’s why I see all this more as a clear sign that we need to move forward with protecting the right to abortion in the constitution,” she said. 

How have the other right-wing parties reacted? 

The other right-wing parties have largely backed Busch, although it’s unclear if any other party leaders are willing to actually sign the document. 

Tobias Billström, the Moderates’ group parliamentary leader, retweeted a tweet from Johan Paccamonti, a Stockholm regional politician with the Moderate Party, which criticised the Social Democrats for not signing it, however. 

“It seems to be more important to blow up a pretend conflict than to sign the Christian Democrats’ contract or look at the issue of [including abortion rights in] the constitution, like the Moderates, Liberals and Centre Party want to,” Paccamonti wrote. 

The Liberal Party on Sunday proposed protecting abortion rights in the Swedish constitution, a proposal which has since been backed by the Moderate party and the Centre Party

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