Young people walking outside the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm.
Heading towards the Swedish parliament. Photo: Anders Löwdin/Sveriges riksdag

Democracy in Sweden

Equal, open and scrutinised by media. Here are 10 features of Swedish democracy.

1. Parliamentary elections

Sweden is a parliamentary democracy. This means there are no presidential elections, only parliamentary elections. Based on which party – or coalition of parties – that receives the majority of votes, the parliament appoints a prime minister who then forms the government.

The last time one party got absolute majority was in 1968, when the Social Democrats received 50.1 per cent of the votes.

2. The four-per cent rule

To be assigned any seats in the Swedish parliament, a party must receive at least four per cent of the votes or at least 12 per cent of the votes in any of the country’s 29 constituencies. That’s why there are few small parties in parliament.

The parliament has 349 seats. After an election, the Election Authority distributes the seats proportionally, depending on the number of votes that each party has received. To make sure that the whole country is represented, the distribution of seats also takes into account the election results in each constituency. The largest constituency is the County of Stockholm, the smallest the County of Gotland.

A polling station, where all we can see is three people's legs beneth green screens.
On election day – always on a Sunday – polling stations are usually open between 8:00 and 20:00. Photo: Per Hanstorp/Scandinav Bildbyrå

The Sami parliament

The indigenous Sami people have their own parliament in Sweden, Sametinget. It is both an elected parliament and a public agency, and its main task is to act for a living Sami culture. This includes being the central administrative agency for reindeer husbandry and leading the Sami language work, among other things.

3. High voter turnout

In the parliamentary elections of 2018, the preliminary voter turnout in Sweden was 87.1 per cent of eligible voters. The turnout has not been below 80 per cent since the 1950s.

Many factors influence the high turnout: trust in democratic institutions, respect for the electoral system, and the fact that parliamentary elections are combined with elections to local and regional governments. The authorities of a municipality or region are chosen by local voters, and not appointed from the capital of Stockholm.

4. Who can vote?

To vote in parliamentary elections in Sweden, you have to be a Swedish citizen aged 18 or more, who is or have been registered in Sweden. But in local and regional elections, it is not only Swedish citizens who have the right to vote, but also:

  • citizens of other EU countries, Iceland or Norway who are registered in the municipality or county; and
  • citizens of other countries who have been registered in Sweden for a minimum of three years and are registered in the municipality or county.

The reasoning is that politicians elected to local and regional authorities should take care of the interests of everyone who lives in the area, regardless of citizenship.

As for women's voting rights, the first time that Swedish women could vote was in 1921 (more in the video below).

Declaration of no confidence

If 35 members or more of the Swedish parliament no longer have confidence in an individual minister or in the government as a whole, they can request a vote on a declaration of no confidence.

If a majority of parliament (175 members or more) decide that they don't have confidence in the prime minister, the government must resign or call an extraordinary election.

If the same applies to an individual minister, the minister must resign.

In Sweden, such votes have been rare over the years.

5. Young people vote too

In Sweden voter turnout is equally high among younger people. Schools often prepare students for voting before they turn 18 by inviting representatives of different political parties, so that students can learn about how the country’s democratic system works and what the different parties stand for. That way, young people have the opportunity to compare and draw their own conclusions.

Students under the age of 18 can sometimes also participate in an initiative called Skolval, school election. They then vote using the same ballots as adults. These votes are not counted as a part of the real elections, and can differ quite a lot from the adults’ votes.

In 2018, for example, the Social Democrats – the largest party – got 28.3 per cent among adults compared with 19.5 per cent among schoolchildren. For the Green Party, it was 4.4 versus 10.3 per cent. The votes for the Sweden Democrats were more even – 17.5 per cent among grown-ups and 15.5 among children. That year, 1,528 schools participated in the school election, and close to 370,000 students voted.

Three girls on a park bench. Someone passes by, blurred.
Many schools in Sweden let students under the age of 18 practice voting in a school election. Photo: Lieselotte van der Meijs/imagebank.sweden.se

6. Registering your own party

In Sweden it is very easy to found a party – it can, for example, be done by forming a non-profit association. The party name can be registered with the Election Authority, but that’s not necessary – people can vote for the party anyway by writing the party name on a clean ballot provided at the polling station. This vote will also be counted.

In the latest elections, all parties that were not among the nine largest only scored around one per cent of the total vote.

Photo: Anders Löwdin/Sveriges riksdag

7. Gender-equal society – gender-equal parliament

After the 2018 elections, there were 188 men and 161 women in the Swedish parliament. That’s the highest share of women since the 2006 election: 184 to 165. And of the 21 ministerial posts in the current government, women occupy 11, including in the ministries of the ‘first order’ such as foreign affairs and finance. This excludes the prime minister – with him, Stefan Löfven, it's 11 men and 11 women.

Incidentally, this reflects the gender balance among voters: an almost equal proportion of men and women went to the polls.

8. Parliamentary diversity – a reflection of the country?

Diversity in the Swedish parliament is not only related to gender, but also age, background, et cetera. The youngest members of parliament (MPs) elected in 2018 were 22 and the oldest 85. Six out of ten members of parliament (MPs) are younger than 50.

Income and education levels vary as well – about one-quarter have only secondary but not university education. While aiming to reflect the actual diversity in Sweden, parliament is still a lot less diverse than the country – for example, the MPs average education level is higher. Also, around 11.5 per cent of MPs were born abroad, but that figure is 19.7 per cent for Sweden as a whole.

Sweden's freedom of the press act, as a book.
In 1766 Sweden became the first country in the world to have freedom of the press written into the constitution. Photo: Fredrik Funk/DN/TT

9. The principle of public access

The Swedish Constitution is made up of four fundamental laws – the Instrument of Government, the Act of Succession, the Freedom of the Press Act and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression – that define how Sweden is governed.

The Freedom of the Press Act sets out the principle of public access to official documents. This principle allows people to study official documents from parliament, the government or any public agency whenever they wish. In other words, not only the media can scrutinise those in power.

Another principle in the Freedom of the Press Act is the freedom to communicate information. Everyone in Sweden is entitled to give information that they feel should be made public to the media. The publisher of the material may not reveal the source if the individual in question wishes to remain anonymous.

10. Media – the ‘third power’

Media in Sweden are sometimes referred to as the ‘third power’. The government is the first power and the parliament the second, and it is seen as the role of media to scrutinise the first two.

Many newspapers declare – in writing – which ideology they stands for. They can be socialist, liberal, independent, and so on, but an important note here is that it doesn’t affect the newspaper’s objectivity: objectivity is vital regardless of ideology. In other words, a socialist newspaper may well criticise the Social Democrats.

Then there is public service media, owned by an independent foundation and funded through a public service fee paid by Swedish households. SVT (Sweden’s Television) operates four television channels, Sveriges Radio (Sweden’s Radio) operates several radio channels – all without advertising – and UR, the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company, produces and broadcasts educational and general knowledge programmes.

These public service companies are led by a special board with members nominated by parliamentary parties, and an independent leader. This setup aims to safeguard Swedish public service broadcasting against monopolistic control.