Sweden is one of the few countries whose name evokes a set of values with significance to the rest of the world. The country stands as a proxy for a combination of egalitarianism, commitment to international peace, and respect for democracy and the rule of law. The fate of those values in Sweden matters well beyond its borders.
Sweden’s commitment to democracy is the result of over 100 years of daily practice of pluralism, tolerance, compromise, inclusion, and vigilance. The results are in plain sight – the country’s democratic performance remains outstanding. When it comes to electoral integrity, the 2019-2021 Report of the Electoral Integrity Project ranks Sweden 2nd in the world. If we focus on the effectiveness of parliament, a key measure of the vitality of checks and balances, the country is first in the world, according to International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy Indices. In a world where, as per IDEA’s figures, average electoral turnout has dropped more than 10 percentage points since the early-1990s, Sweden’s turnout at the last election (87%) was one of the world’s highest and on a par, remarkably, with the country’s participation rates in the 1970s, despite voting not being compulsory. The 2022 World Press Freedom Index has Sweden in the 3rd place globally. Swedish women occupy 55 percent of senior management positions in government, the second highest among OECD countries, and 47% of seats in parliament, third in the OECD. The overall picture is of an exceptionally robust democracy.
Alas, no democracy is perfect. The recent scandal about attempts by some parties to subvert the spirit of political finance regulation is but one example of the many areas in which Swedish democracy needs reform. Indeed, the country continues to embrace a lax approach to political finance, anchored in the generous availability of public funding for parties, and in which private political donations and party and candidate expenditures are practically unregulated, except for the obligation to report the origin of donations above 24,150 kronor. Sweden is one of very few European countries that lack reporting requirements for party spending. It is also one of the few countries where foreign political donations are legal. The latter have been banned in 77 percent of European countries, including Finland, Iceland and Norway. The current set of political finance regulations is an accident waiting to happen, and we may have just seen the first evidence of the risks involved.
A much more serious weakness –one repeatedly pointed out by experts—concerns the ease with which the constitutional framework can be amended. As of today, any provision of the Swedish Constitution can be changed by two simple majority votes in Parliament with an intervening election, in a process that could take a little more than one year. At no point in the process a qualified majority is needed. One shudders at what a Viktor Orbán-like leader could do to the basic tenets of democracy and the rule of law on the back of a transient majority. Is such figure likely to emerge soon in Sweden? Maybe not, but in an age of increasing polarisation and global headwinds against democracy the probability is considerably greater than zero.
Herein lies the crux of the matter. The past success of democracy in Sweden has created an atmosphere in which it is easy to dismiss the need for reforms. The glaring feature of the Swedish electoral and political system –one visible to any foreigner, particularly one who, like me, comes from Latin America—is the astonishing levels of trust upon which it is based. Trust in Parliament, political parties, and the national government in Sweden dwarfs even the EU average (72 percent vs 34 percent, 38 percent vs 19 percent and 58 percent vs 34 percent, all according to Statista). There’s no question that such levels of trust are well earned when one looks at the track record of democratic institutions in the country. But past is not always prologue. The real question is whether unshakable trust is a valid operating premise for any democratic system that wants to endure in this age of ominous threats to democracy. Who could deny, for example, that the reluctance to ban foreign political donations is spectacularly ill advised in an age of well documented transnational efforts to subvert democracy?
No democracy is immune to backsliding. The health of any democracy requires eternal vigilance on society’s part. Whatever each of us may think about the tenor of current political debates in Sweden about migration and public order, it seems clear that political elites and a large part of society have recognised that the mores that worked well for the country in the past may need to be rethought in the face of a different world. It is open to question if the same realisation has dawned upon as many people with regards to Sweden’s constitutional and electoral rules. When it comes to the latter, the country seems determined to cling to an illustrious past and vaporous notions of trust. These premises will be put to test sooner or later. Sweden’s democracy is very strong, but it deserves to be protected in a more active and muscular way. This for its own sake, but also for what it means to the world.