OPINION: To protect Sweden’s democracy, trust is not enough

With only two majority votes in parliament needed to change the constitution, Sweden's democratic system, while robust, is also vulnerable, warns Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary General for International IDEA.

OPINION: To protect Sweden’s democracy, trust is not enough
Kevin Casas-Zamora is Secretary-General of International IDEA. Photo: International IDEA

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.

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Why is Sweden’s parliamentary speaker election so important?

Sweden's parliamentary speaker is second only to the King in terms of formal rank. The prospect of a Sweden Democrat speaker taking over the role from popular Moderate Andreas Norlén has sparked debate. Here's why.

Why is Sweden's parliamentary speaker election so important?

On Monday, Sweden’s newly-elected parliament will elect a new speaker – talman in Swedish, but it’s still not clear who is likely to take over the post from Moderate Andreas Norlén, who has held the position since 2018.

How is a speaker candidate usually chosen?

There is no formal rule on how a speaker candidate is nominated, with the Social Democrats usually insisting the largest party supplies the speaker, and the Moderates arguing that the largest party in their bloc should provide the speaker.

Until now, that has meant that the Social Democrats believe the speaker should be a Social Democrat, and the Moderates believe the speaker should be a Moderate.

However, with the Sweden Democrats now the second-largest party in Sweden’s parliament, they have made claims on the speaker post, as they are now the largest party in their bloc, meaning under the Moderates’ rules, they should supply the speaker.

This has made the question of who should take over as the new speaker unusually charged.

Often – but not always, the speaker has been from the same party or bloc as the government. However, there are examples, such as in the case of Norlén, who has held the post despite there being a Social Democrat government for the last eight years, as there was a majority supporting him in parliament.

Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson sits down for a talk with Andreas Norlén, speaker of the Swedish parliament. Photo: Anders Wiklund / TT

How is the speaker elected?

The first time parliament meets after an election, members of parliament (MPs) decide which MP will become the parliamentary speaker and which three MPs will become the deputy speakers. These four speakers are elected in separate ballots, first the speaker, then the first deputy speaker, the second deputy speaker and the third deputy speaker.

The candidates are nominated by parliamentary party groups, after which a secret ballot is held where each MP votes anonymously. To be successful, a speaker candidate must secure a majority of votes – 175.

If no candidate secures a majority, another vote is held, where a candidate must still gain 175 or more votes to win.

If no candidate is successful, a third vote is held, where the candidate with the most votes is elected – they do not need a majority.

If the third vote ends in a tie between two candidates, lots are drawn to determine which candidate is elected speaker.

A speaker is elected for an entire election period – they cannot be removed by parliament during this period, and the role can only change hands after a new parliamentary election, which usually means that a speaker sits for four years at a time.

What does the speaker do?

The speaker – aside from being the second-highest ranking official in the country after the King – holds a prestigious position.

They do not have political influence and, if elected, must resign from their role as a member of parliament. But they have an important role to play in building a government, nominating Sweden’s new prime minister after an election and dismissing the prime minister if they lose a no-confidence vote.

Although there are checks on these powers – a new prime minister must be approved by parliament before they take power – a speaker could, theoretically, nominate four prime ministerial candidates to parliament in succession, knowing that each would lose a parliamentary vote, and thereby trigger a general election.

The speaker, currently Andreas Norlén (left) regularly welcomes foreign dignitaries alongside Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf. Here seen with King Carl Gustaf (left) and Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö (centre).
Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

The speaker could also theoretically refuse to nominate a prime ministerial candidate despite them being the leader of the largest bloc, although this has never happened in practice.

It is also impossible for parliament to remove a speaker once they are elected, unless a new parliamentary election is held and an entire new parliament is elected, meaning that if a speaker were to misuse their powers, it would be difficult for parliament to replace them.

The speaker is the main representative of parliament, leading and planning parliamentary activities. The speaker is chairman of meetings in the parliamentary chamber and is an official representative for Sweden at home and abroad.

Why would it be controversial if the Sweden Democrats supplied the speaker?

Electing a Sweden Democrat speaker would be a win for the far-right party, as a confirmation that the party has finally been accepted into the corridors of power.

According to a source at newspaper Aftonbladet, the four parties backing Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson to become Sweden’s next prime minister have already agreed on stricter migration and crime policies, as well as who should be voted in as speaker of the country’s parliament when the role goes up for a vote on Monday. 

Multiple parties in the left-wing bloc have objected to a Sweden Democrat supplying the speaker, with outgoing Social Democrat Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson stating that her party is willing to collaborate with the Moderates and reelect Andreas Norlén as Sweden’s speaker instead in order to avoid a Sweden Democrat taking on the role.

Andersson said her party would be willing to “make an exception” to its principle. “We think there are arguments at this time, to have a speaker who can be appointed with very broad support in the parliament. What’s important is that it’s someone who can bring people together, either a Social Democrat or a Moderate”.

“I can state that Andreas Norlén enjoys great respect, both in the parliament, and among the Swedish people,” she said. “He has handled his duties creditably and during a turbulent time, and a problematic parliamentary situation.”

She said she was offering to discuss the issue with Kristersson to avoid the risk of a Sweden Democrat speaker, something she said would be “problematic”.

“This is a party whose whole rationale is to split rather than unite. This is also about the picture of Sweden overseas.”

Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson has not responded to Andersson’s comments.

Sweden Democrat former deputy speaker Björn Söder (left) and party leader Jimmie Åkesson (right). Photo: Jessica Gow//TT

There are also some MPs in the Liberal Party – who have agreed to support a Moderate-led government alongside the Sweden Democrats – who have stated they will not approve a government with Sweden Democrat ministers, and may also vote against letting them have the role of speaker.

Sweden Democrat Björn Söder, who held the role of deputy speaker between 2014-18, is a possible candidate for the far-right party. Söder is a controversial figure, having previously stated that Jewish people and Sami are “not Swedes”, leading to calls that he is not suitable for a role as a representative for all of Sweden.

Söder has also previously likened homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, stating in an article on the Sweden Democrats’ official online news site that “these sexual aversions are not normal and will never be normal”.

A public petition against electing Björn Söder as parliament’s new speaker had over 65,000 signatures as of September 23rd.