The Swedish Parliament to commemorate and celebrate democracy in 2018–2022.
The Swedish Parliament celebrates democracy 100 years
One hundred years ago, a decision was taken in the Swedish Parliament to introduce universal and equal suffrage. The reform was carried out following a long struggle and intensive advocacy efforts and the decision is regarded as a milestone in the history of Swedish democracy. This is being marked at the Swedish Parliament – the Riksdag – with four years of celebrations during which the advent of democracy will be commemorated in different ways.
The advent of democracy
Sweden has universal suffrage, but this has not always been the case. Over the years there have been different requirements regarding voting rights in Sweden. Join us on a journey through the history of democracy.
Changes in society and reforms in the Riksdag
In the 19th century, new ideas about the equal worth of all people, power sharing and co-determination emerged in Sweden. At the same time, industrialisation took off and many people started moving from the countryside to find work in towns. Sweden was a poor country at the time, and 1.5 million Swedes emigrated, primarily to North America. The Age of Enlightenment's ideas about the equal worth of all people, representative democracy and co-determination spread and people from the lower social classes started to question established social structures and demand political change.
A reform of the Riksdag took place in 1866. Sweden abandoned the Riksdag of the four Estates, where power was based on the Estate you were born into. This was replaced with a parliament with two chambers, which was intended to represent the population more accurately. Still the Riksdag still only consisted of men with money and property, and voting rights were still limited to the richest men in society.
Sweden in the early 20th century was a society that was dominated in almost all areas by older, affluent men. Politics, the church, the cultural sector and industry were mainly run by men from the upper classes in society. The prevailing view of social class and gender meant that over 90 per cent of the population were not regarded as equal citizens. The poor, criminals, the sick and other groups with low social status lacked both representation and the right to vote. Women not only lacked the right to vote but, in many cases, had limited opportunities to decide over their own economy and had to fight for their right to higher education and to positions in the public sector.
The prevailing social order was therefore challenged to its core when both men and women started to demand equal rights as citizens, regardless of class, gender, representation in politics or voting rights.
The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century was the age of popular movements. The free-church movement, temperance movement, women's movement and the labour movement all gathered force from the problems, but also from the freedom that arose with the disintegration of the society of the four Estates. In towns and manufacturing estates people with similar views could meet, organise themselves in associations and fight for change together. They were convinced that alcohol problems, poor working conditions, oppression of women and other problems in society could be tackled through cooperation. Trade unions, temperance societies, free churches and political parties were started.
The emerging associations also provided people with a sound education in methods for democracy. Within the popular movements, meetings and debates were held, minutes taken and votes were held when decisions were to be made - just as the politicians did in the Riksdag. This coordinated non-parliamentary fight was something entirely new. People without wealth, higher education or the right to vote challenged the established powers in the government, church and industry.
Technical developments also helped to promote the popular movements’ opinion formation. The railways, telegraph, postal services, illustrated journals and numerous new publishing companies made it easier to spread political messages across the country.
In Sweden, the Swedish General Suffrage Association was established in 1890 with the aim of promoting universal suffrage, although suffrage for men was top of the agenda. In 1902, Minister for Justice Hjalmar Hammarskjöld presented a proposal that married men should have two votes each, one for themselves and one for their wives, but got the reply from members of the Riksdag Carl Lindhagen that all women should have the right to vote. Lindhagen's proposal was outvoted and for many women, this was the final straw. They had not been given the platform they wanted in the Swedish General Suffrage Association and decided instead to establish the National Association for Women's Suffrage (LKPR). The Association had one single goal: Suffrage for women, on the same terms as for men. The LKPR set up local associations throughout the country and collected 350,000 signatures which were handed to the Riksdag in 1914
The right to vote - the decision and election
In 1884, the first motion regarding women's suffrage was sent to the Riksdag by the MP Fredrik T Borg. From the late 1880s and for the next 20 years, the question of extended voting rights would continue to be a standing topic in the Riksdag. Numerous proposals were presented, but were almost always rejected.
Men were granted suffrage in 1907 and 1909. A right-wing government led by Arvid Lindman took over and presented a compromise proposal which gained sufficient support from both right-wing politicians and liberals. The share of the population that was entitled to vote increased from 9 per cent to just over 19 per cent. The election to the Second Chamber in 1911 was the first with universal suffrage for men.
Women's suffrage had to wait until the Riksdag reached its first agreement in 1918. That the time was ripe right then can partly be explained by concerns about a possible revolution or riots. The situation was turbulent throughout Europe. World War I was raging and spreading disquiet, discontent and hunger because of food rationing. In 1917, the people of Sweden had had enough of food rationing, and riots broke out across the country. The politicians feared a revolution and the industrial sector worried that business was dwindling. The members of the Riksdag realised that something had to be done.
Alongside the right to vote, the distribution of power between the Riksdag and the monarchy had also become a hot issue.
In the autumn of 1917, King Gustav V and the incoming Prime Minister Nils Edén reached an agreement that became an important premise for Sweden's continued democratisation. In a conversation with Edén, the King promised not to intervene in the Government's policies. Edén would rule the country with the support of the Riksdag, regardless of the opinions of the King.
It was not unsurprising that Edén wanted a promise from the King, because a few years earlier, King Gustav V had caused a government crisis with his palace yard speech, in which he directly challenged the Government's defence policy. The Prime Minister at the time, the liberal Karl Staaff, saw the King's actions as a betrayal and a breach of the prevailing political practice, and demanded that the King refrain from such protests in the future. When the King refused, the Government resigned.
Not until after Edén’s agreement with the King in 1917 did a parliamentary system really set root in Swedish politics. Since then, the Government's policies have been dependent only on the support of the Riksdag - not on the opinions or political whims of the King. However, it was not until 1974 that the parliamentary system of government was written into to the Swedish Constitution.
On 17 December 1918, the two Chambers of the Riksdag took a decision: Sweden was to introduce universal and equal suffrage. As this was an extra meeting of the Riksdag, it was not possible to take a formal decision. The first decision was taken on 24 May 1919, and the second in 1921. In the election to the Riksdag the same year, women got to vote for the first time. The number of eligible voters increased by over 2 million people, of whom approximately 1.7 million were women. Voter turnout
In January 1922, the first women entered the Riksdag: Kerstin Hesselgren was elected to the First Chamber and Elisabeth Tamm, Bertha Wellin, Agda Östlund and Nelly Thüring to the Second Chamber.
The right to vote is extended
Even though women and men had been given the right to vote, there were still several groups that were not permitted to vote. Step by step, the restrictions were removed. The restrictions consisted of legal conditions that prevented certain groups from voting.
Here follows an overview of the most significant voting right restrictions. The last restriction disappeared in 1989, when people could no longer be declared legally incompetent. This means that all Swedish citizens over the age of 18 now enjoy the right to vote.
- 1907–09 Universal suffrage for men.
- 1918–1921 Universal and equal suffrage for men and women.
- 1937: Prisoners are given the right to vote.
- 1945: People who have gone bankrupt or who are on social allowance are given the right to vote.
- 1965–75: The voting age is successively lowered to the current 18 years.
- 1989: The term legally incompetent is removed from legislation.
In 2013, the Riksdag decided to commemorate the fact that one hundred years had passed since the advent of democracy in Sweden. This was the result of a private member’s motion from the then member of the Riksdag Leif Pagrotsky. The Riksdag Board decided that the celebrations should take place between 2018 and 2022 and a cross-party committee was appointed consisting of a member from each Riksdag party chaired by the Speaker. The Riksdag Board also decided that the democratisation process and the Riksdag’s role in this process should be at the heart of the celebrations.
Since February 2018, a Secretariat for the Democracy Centenary has been established at the Communications Division of the Riksdag Administration. The Secretariat is working together with the rest of the Division with the various activities that will be part of the celebrations.
The cross-party committee proposed a number of activities for the centenary years. Among the activities already proposed by the committee, and those that are still at the planning stage, are exhibitions, mobile information points and a website.
Activities during the centenary years
During the four-year period there will be an exhibition in the Old Town in Stockholm. Not only will various parts of the democratisation process be depicted dramatically, but the spotlight will also be on the challenges facing our democratic system and the issues we will have to deal with in future.
The exhibition will open on 17 December 2018, the same day one hundred years ago that the first agreements on universal and equal suffrage were reached in the Riksdag in 1918. Another exhibition is also planned for the Grand Gallery of the Riksdag, through which many visitors pass on guided tours and school visits. There are also plans to have a travelling exhibition which will visit many places around the country.
You will be able to follow the democracy centenary through a wide range of digital channels, including our own website: https://firademokratin.riksdagen.se
On our website and in a magazine for use in upper-secondary school, you can read about how the Riksdag took the decision to introduce universal and equal suffrage. The magazine can be ordered from the website, Beställ och ladda ned.
The website will be continuously updated with more in-depth material on democracy and democratic values, films and games during the centenary years.
17 December will see the publication of an anthology of texts on the development of democracy and democratic processes today and in the future. It is edited by two of Sweden’s most prominent specialists on the subject. Ten researchers give their views on democracy and democratic challenges such as digitisation, globalisation and political participation.
During the coming years, a number of seminars are also planned and the Riksdag is planning to participate in such events as Democracy Days, the annual political gathering in Almedalen on the island of Gotland and the Gothenburg Book Fair.
The objective of the centenary is to increase knowledge on the history, meaning and significance of democracy, and to provide knowledge on the democratisation process and the role of the Riksdag in this process.
The Riksdag also wishes to arouse interest in the importance of democracy and politics both today and in the future.