The Swedish Constitution consists of four separate documents:
the Instrument of Government passed in 1974, the Act of Succession
dating from 1810, the Freedom of the Press Act of 1949, and the
Freedom of Expression Act of 1991. In addition, there is a Parliament
Act of 1974, which occupies a position midway between constitutional
and ordinary statute law.
The Instrument of Government is the most important
constitutional document. It went into effect in 1975, when it replaced
the 1809 Instrument of Government. The new Constitution brought
about no radical changes in the prevailing system of government. The
reform largely involved a formal incorporation of current practices into
the written Constitution. Thus, the new Constitution is consistently
based on the principles of popular sovereignty, representative
democracy, and parliamentarism. A Parliament elected by the people
occupies the pre-eminent position among the branches of
government; it is the foundation for the democratic exercise of power
through the Cabinet.
The reforming of the Constitution did not end with the enactment
of the new Instrument of Government. In 1976 and 1979, Parliament
passed laws amending the Constitution. The aim of both amendments
was to strengthen the constitutional protection of the human rights and
fundamental freedoms. The new Freedom of Expression Act protects
freedom of expression on the radio and television, in films, videos and
sound recordings, etc., and is based on the same principles as the
Freedom of the Press Act. Thus, for example, the ban on censorship
and freedom of establishment now applies to the entire field of modern
mass media. Only when it comes to the use of radio broadcasting
frequencies might the principle of freedom of establishment not apply
as it does for the freedom of the press. Further, films and videos for
public screening may also be subject to preliminary scrutiny.
In 1994 the Instrument of Government was amended in order to
make it possible for Sweden to join the European Union. The
agreement on Sweden’s entry into the EU was ratified by Parliament in
December that year.
The King of Swedensince September 1973 Carl XVI Gustaf
exerts no political power and takes no part in politics. He represents
the nation. According to the Constitution he is the Head of State. In
this capacity he performs only ceremonial duties and functions as the
official representative of Sweden. One of these official duties is to
open the annual session of Parliament in September. He does not
take part in the deliberations of the Cabinet, nor does he have to sign
any Government decisions. His earlier role in selecting a new Prime
Minister has been taken over by the Speaker of Parliament.
In 1979, the Act of Succession was amended in order to give
males and females equal rights to the throne. As from 1980, this right
belongs to the first-born, regardless of gender.
Political power rests with the Cabinet and the party or
parties it represents. There are 22 ministers (11 men and 11 women)
in the Cabinet. The Prime Minister has at his side a Deputy Prime
Minister and 13 Heads of Ministry. The latter are the ministers of 1.
justice, 2. foreign affairs, 3. defense, 4. health and social affairs, 5.
transport and communications, 6. finance, 7. education and science,
8. agriculture, 9. labor, 10. culture, 11. industry and trade, 12. the
interior, and 13. the environment. The present Cabinet also includes
seven ministers without portfolio.
At times, independent experts are called upon to serve on the
Cabinet. As a rule, however, the ministers are representatives of the
political party or parties in power. In many cases they are members of
Parliament, retaining their seats in Parliament while serving on the
Cabinet. A substitute takes over the parliamentary duties of any MP
who has been appointed to the Cabinet, and this continues as long as
the MP remains in the Cabinet. In other words, a Cabinet minister has
to give up his right to vote in Parliament. All ministers are, however,
entitled to take part in parliamentary debates.
According to the Constitution, the formal power of governmental
decision rests with the Cabinet, not the monarch. If the Cabinet has
resigned, the Speaker of Parliament is required to confer with the
leaders of the parliamentary parties and with the Deputy Speakers
before proposing a new Prime Minister. Parliament then votes on this
proposal. If an absolute majority votes against the proposal, it is
considered to have failed. Otherwise it is considered approved. The
Speaker thereupon appoints the Prime Minister, who in turn appoints
all other Cabinet ministers. If the Prime Minister so requests, the
Speaker can discharge him. The same applies if Parliament declares
that the Prime Minister does not enjoy its confidence. Other Cabinet
ministers may be dismissed either by the Prime Minister or by
Parliament through a vote of no confidence.
Functions of ministries
The ministries are small units, each as a rule consisting of no
more than about 100 persons (including clerical staff). They are
concerned with 1. preparing the Government’s bills to Parliament on
budget appropriations and laws, 2. issuing laws and regulations and
general rules for the administrative agencies, 3. international relations,
4. appointments of officials in the administration, and 5. certain
appeals from individuals, which are addressed to the Government.
Except for these appeals, the ministries are generally not concerned
with details of administration. Matters concerning the practical
implementation of legislation or general rules may, however, in various
wayse.g. through the mediabe brought before the ministries.
Working methods of the Cabinet
The Cabinet as a whole is responsible for all Government
decisions. Although in practice a great number of routine matters are
decided upon by individual ministers and only formally confirmed by
the Government, the principle of collective responsibility is reflected in
all forms of government work.
Once a week, the formal decisions of the Government are made
at a meeting presided over by the Prime Minister. All important
decisions to be made by the Government are subject to previous
discussion by the Cabinet as a whole. Plenary meetings under the
chairmanship of the Prime Minister are normally held one to
threetimes a week. At these meetings, top officials often introduce the
matters at hand and reply to questions raised by ministers, whereupon
the Cabinet discussions and informal decisions proceed behind closed
doors. No minutes are taken.
As a rule, Cabinet members lunch together in their private
restaurant in the Government Office, where no guests are admitted. In
practice, a great number of decisions are made quite informally at
these luncheons after a briefing given by the minister concerned.
A third informal kind of Cabinet decision-making is when two or
three ministers discuss a matterwith or without the presence of
officials from their ministriesin order to reach agreement without
taking up the time of the whole Cabinet.
The working methods thus described allow for a high degree of
coordination between all the branches of Government in matters of
policy. The officials of the ministries often meet one another in order
to prepare decisions. Before becoming final and public, all decisions of
interest to more than one ministry are commented upon by top officials
of the ministries concerned. An important feature of the working
methods of the Government is that all bills to be presented and
important ministerial pronouncements to be made in Parliament on
behalf of the Government, are circulated beforehand to all ministers
for their written comments. This system allows for exchange of
information and discussion between Cabinet ministers and top officials
before the formal decisions are taken.
The ministries at work
The actual functioning of the ministries differs somewhat from
one ministry to another although the fundamental set-up is very much
the same. The following account is applicable to the present working
methods of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.
This ministry has six divisions which deal with social insurance,
children and families, social services, health care, the disabled and
elderly, and administrative law. Four secretariats deal with planning
and budgetary questions, international relations, long-term analysis
and legal matters, fulfilling an advisory and coordinating function for
the specialized units referred to above.
The highest-ranking officials of the ministry are the Under-
Secretary of State, the Permanent Under- Secretary, and the Under-
Secretary for Legal Affairs.
The Under-Secretary of State is responsible to the minister for
leading the work within the ministry. It is thus up to him to plan the
ministry’s work, to supervise the execution of this work and to
establish the necessary coordination between the activities of the
different ministerial units.
The Permanent Under-Secretary supervises the legality and
consistency of administrative decisions to be made within the ministry
and is responsible for the final drafting of Government decisions to be
dispatched from the ministry.
The Under-Secretary for Legal Affairs is mainly responsible for
the drafting of laws and regulations within the ministry’s sphere of
The Under-Secretaries of State are among the few political
appointees of the ministries. An Under-Secretary’s post as such does
not entitle him to speak in Parliament, but there is a listener’s seat for
him in the assembly hall. The Under-Secretary represents the ministry
and the minister. He is often a delegate to international conferences.
All officials of the ministries are appointed by the Cabinet (or by
the minister concerned); Parliament has no right to intervene or pass
judgment on the appointments.
In the case of a change of party or parties in office, limited
changes take place in the cadre of officials. Under-Secretaries of
State, political advisers and information officers are all recognized as
political appointees and have to resign when there is a change of
All civil servants in Sweden as well as military and police
personnel are free to take part in political life and to hold political
Commissions of inquiry
As a rule, the preparation of legislative or other reforms is not
handled by the ministerial staff alone. In matters of major importance
the following procedure is normal: the Government on its own
initiative or at the request of Parliamentcalls upon a group of experts
to serve on a commission of inquiry. The tasks of the commission are
specified in a written statement by the minister concerned, approved
by the Government.
Commissions may include members of Parliament, both from
the Government and the Opposition, representatives of labor and
management bodies or other organizations interested in the problems
at hand, and experts from the scientific world or the administrative
bodies concernednormally 510 people in all. The secretariat
although in most cases organized as an independent officeis
provided by the appropriate ministry, which also pays the expenses of
The commissions are given a high degree of freedom to pursue
their inquiries through travel, hearings, research, etc. The proceedings
are, in general, closed to the publicbut are often closely followed by
the pressuntil the day when they publish their printed report. A
commission often works for one or two years, sometimes longer. In
many cases, the proposals of the commissions are unanimous, at
least on matters of principle, but members may have alternative
proposals printed in the report.
Every commission report is sent by the ministry concerned to
various administrative agencies and non-governmental organizations
for their official comments. Any organization, whether approached in
this way or not, is free to make known its opinions to the ministry. The
material thus assembled is reportedthough normally not in fullas
background to Government bills to Parliament. Consequently, a bill is
often a heavy documentsometimes hundreds of pagesin which
the Government has to argue its position in the light of a very thorough
public discussion reproduced in the bill. MPs can easily discover
whether or not the Government has followed the wishes or intentions
brought to the fore by party representatives or the organizations they
This method is cumbersome and often time-consuming. It is,
however, considered to be a very valuable form of democratic
government. The parties of the opposition, directly taking part in the
preparation of political decisions, are given a chance to influence the
Government before it takes its position.
The enforcement of Government decisions is entrusted to a
number of central administrative agencies. For example, under the
Ministry of Health and Social Affairs come the National Board of
Health and Welfare, the National Social Insurance Board, and certain
other smaller agencies.
Every such agency is headed by a director general appointed by
the Government, as a rule for a period of six years at a time.
Sometimes a director general is chosen from political circles. The
board of an agency consists of the director general as chairman, a
number of the senior officials serving under him and some laymen,
representing organizations or sections of the population with special
interest in the matters of the agency concerned. To some degree,
politicians are also included in this lay element. Ministers or ministerial
bodies cannot interfere with the agencies’ handling of particular
administrative cases. All board members are appointed by the
Government, as are senior officials of the agencies. Less senior
personnel are appointed by the board itself.
As a consequence of their independent position, the central
agencies are expected to submit proposals to the Government
regarding the policy to be followed by them. On the basis of their
practical experience they often propose, in their respective fields,
amendments to laws and regulations decided upon by Parliament and
Government. Such recommendations by agencies are customarily
circulated for examination and written comment in the same way as
If a person affected by the decision or administrative action of an
agency finds it unacceptable, he may appeal to a higher authority.
Appeals mainly concerning subjective matters or questions of
aptitude, such as those related to civil service appointments, are
usually settled in the final instance by the Cabinet. Appeals mainly
involving legal questions are as a rule settled by administrative courts,
with the last resort being the Supreme Administrative Court.
The principle of public access to official documents
Most official documents are accessible to the press and to
private citizens. All files of any administrative office are open to the
public if not secret, according to the Freedom of the Press Act and
the Secrecy Act, for reasons related to military security, international
relations or the privacy of individuals concerned (because they contain
criminal or medical records and the like), etc. Nobody is obliged to
justify his wish to see a public document or to reveal his identity to
get access to the document.
Since 1971, Sweden has had a unicameral Parliament. A
constitutional amendment adopted in 196869 abolished the
bicameral system which had existed since 1866. The whole
Parliament is constituted by direct elections based on a suffrage that
comprises all Swedes aged 18 or over, who are or have been resident
Parliament has 349 members, who serve four-year terms.
Eligibility to serve in Parliament is subject to Swedish citizenship and
the attainment of voting age. All elections are by proportional
representation. The electoral system is designed to ensure a
distribution of seats between the parties in proportion to the votes cast
for them nationally. Proportional fairness is not to be primarily
achieved in each electoral district but in the whole country regarded as
a single electoral district. Hence, in addition to 310 fixed electoral
district seats, 39 seats are distributed at large so as to obtain a fair,
nationally proportional result. However, the at-large seats are also
filled by candidates from the parties’ regular electoral rolls. There is
one exception to the rule on complete national proportionality: a quota
rule intended to prevent very small parties from gaining representation
in Parliament. A party must thus gain at least 4% of the national vote
to qualify for representation. In any one electoral district, however, a
party will be allocated a number of the fixed seats by obtaining 12% of
the votes, even if its national popular vote falls short of 4%.
A newly-elected Parliament commences its first session and
term of office fifteen days after the election.
The trades and professions of Swedish society are fairly well
represented in Parliament, although public sector employees are
overrepresented. Following the 1994 election the proportion of women
in Parliament has risen to 41%.
To perform the function of control that is so important for a
representative assembly, Parliament may, with an absolute majority,
pass a vote of no confidence leading either to the resignation of
individual ministers or of the whole Government. However, a vote of
no confidence is of no effect if the Government calls for new elections
within one week.
The unicameral Parliament has a presidium consisting of the
Speaker and three Deputy Speakers. Each newly-elected Parliament
appoints for its four-year term at least fifteen standing committees, of
which one is on the Constitution, one deals with budgeting and
finance, one deals with taxes, and the remainder are specialized
bodies, largely corresponding to the division of ministries. Additional
committees may be constituted while Parliament is in session. On
these committees parties are represented in proportion to their
strength. Committees may allow Cabinet ministers to attend their
meetings in order to provide information. Ministerial officials are often
requested to attend such meetings in order to provide explanations
and other relevant information.
Posts in the parliamentary presidium as well as the
chairmanship of committees areaccording to free agreement among
the parties generally distributed among the parties.
During the first fifteen days after the Government has presented
its Budget Bill, individual members are entitled to introduce bills on
any subject. After the delivery of each Government bill , a period of
fifteen days is allotted to the MPs to propose amendments. All such
bills and MPs’ bills are referred to committees, where they are
discussed thoroughly. Committees often invite written comments on
MPs’ bills or, occasionally, hold hearings on Government bills.
All matters dealt with in committee are reported to Parliament in
plenary session. To kill a proposal in committee by sitting on a bill is
not possible. Committee reports generally contain a thorough account
of historical and other relevant facts connected with the proposal.
Cabinet members are expected to defend their bills in the
plenary sessions. Ministers normally do not take part in the debates on
individual members’ bills. Such bills, when not related to a
Government bill before Parliament, as a rule result in a request to the
Government to investigate the issue raised or to put forward, for a
future session, a proposal of a certain character.
Although the right of MPs to speak is practically unlimited, it is
not possibleby filibustering or otherwiseto avoid decision on a
matter which is before Parliament. The rules of procedure being very
clear and detailed, procedural debates are very rare.
Parliament is in session for roughly eight months, the period
mid- JuneSeptember being free. Committees normally meet on
Tuesdays and Thursdays, while plenary sessions are held on
Tuesdays through Thursdays.
The MPs have official substitutes. The substitute takes over the
parliamentary duties of any MP who is a Cabinet minister or Speaker
or who is absent for a month or longer. Because the Speaker has a
substitute, he or she cannot vote in Parliament. As coordinator of the
work of Parliament, the Speaker is expected to stand above party
Dissolution of Parliament
General elections are held on the third Sunday of September
every fourth year. The Government has the right to call for extra
elections between the regular ones. The mandate of an extra election
is valid only for the remaining portion of the regular four-year
parliamentary term of office.
Referenda are permitted by the Constitution in two different
cases. Parliament may enact a law according to which a consultative
referendum is to be held. As yet, only five consultative referenda have
taken place. The latest was held in November 1994 on the question of
Sweden’s entry into the European Union.
In 1979, the Constitution was amended so that decisive
referenda may be held on amendments to the Constitution. One third
of the MPs can bring about such a referendum, which then shall be
held simultaneously with the general elections. As yet, no such
referendum has taken place.
The political parties
The seven parties presently in Parliament are the Moderate
Party , the Liberal Party , the Center Party, the Christian Democrats,
the Green Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Left Party. The
parties are well organized both in Parliament and outside. The Social
Democratic Party is closely allied with the predominantly blue-collar
Swedish Trade Union Confederation, LO, which has a number of
Social Democratic representatives in Parliament.
Since 1966, State subsidies have been paid to every political
party which has any significant support from the voters, as manifested
in the general elections. These funds are paid in the form of party
subsidies and secretariat subsidies. A party is eligible for party
subsidies if it has received at least one seat in Parliament or 2.6% of
the votes throughout the whole country at either of the last two
elections. To qualify for secretariat subsidies, a party is required, in
principle, either to have won a seat in Parliament in the last election or
to have received at least 4% of the votes in the whole country at that
election. The size of the subsidies is related to party strength.
Secretariat subsidies are larger for opposition parties than for parties
in office. A total of approximately SEK 133.4 million will be distributed
to the parties with seats in Parliament in fiscal 1997. No conditions are
attached to the subsidies, nor is there any public audit of their
Between 1932 and 1976, the Social Democrats were in office
continuouslyexcept for an interregnum of 100 days in 1936.Between
1933 and 1936, they had a working agreement with the Center Party.
Coalition governments of Social Democrats and the Center Party were
in power in 19361939 and 19511957. During World War II,
19391945, all parties except the Communists were represented in a
coalition government. During the years 19451951 and 19571976,
the Social Democrats were in office alone.
In the 1976 elections, the non-socialist parties together won a
majority of parliamentary seats. The Social Democratic Government
resigned and was succeeded by a coalition made up of the Center, the
Moderates and the Liberal Party. The Center Party chairman became
Prime Minister. After two years in office, this coalition Government was
succeeded by a Liberal Party minority Government.
In the 1979 elections, the non-socialist parties together kept the
majority of parliamentary seats with the narrowest margin possible
(175 out of 349). A new three-party coalition Government was formed.
In the spring of 1981, the Moderate Party left the Government.
In the 1982 elections, the non-socialist parties lost their majority
of parliamentary seats. The coalition Government was succeeded by a
Social Democratic minority Government (166 out of 349 seats). After
the 1985 elections, the Social Democrats remained in power (159
seats), as well as after the 1988 elections when they won 156 seats.
In the 1991 elections, the Social Democrats received only 138
seats and the Government was succeeded by a non-socialist minority
Government made up of the Moderates, Liberals, Center and
Christian Democrats (with a total of 170 seats).
In the 1994 election three of the four coalition parties lost seats
and the Government resigned. The Social Democrats with 161 seats
formed a new minority Government.
All political organizations enjoy full freedom and all democratic
The freedom of the press has no limits in Sweden as far as
politics is concerned. Almost half the daily pressin terms of
circulation figuressupports the Liberal Party or has a political
philosophy mainly reflecting Liberal values, while just under one
quarter favors the Moderates and another quarter the Social
Democrats. The Center and other parties have relatively few
The role of organizations
Representatives of interest organizations of different kinds sit in
Parliament, serve on commissions of inquiry and on the boards of
some of the administrative agencies. These organizations are invited
to submit comments on all sorts of proposals forwarded within the
administration or Parliament. Their views are recorded in the official
publications of the political system.
The above applies especially to organizations representing blue-
collar workers, salaried employees, women, employers, consumers’
and producers’ cooperatives, smallholders, industry, business, the
wholesale and retail trades, tenants, landlords, etc.
Since 1977, the unions representing civil servants have enjoyed
certain rights to negotiate with the State in its role as an employer
concerning planned reforms and the like which may affect the
employees’ working conditions. However, contracts which infringe on
political democracy are not permitted.
At the top level, in the Government Office, leading personalities
from management and labor, industry and trade, etc., are invited to
serve on certain advisory committees. Thus they sit on consultative
bodies for matters relating to employment policies, construction
It would seem that pressure groups in Sweden should not
really be called by that name, since they constitute a regular part of
the democratic system itself. Not only are they involved in public
discussion, but they also play a responsible part in actual
administration at all levels.
Before 1971, Sweden was divided into 850 municipalities, each
with an elected assembly. This number has now been reduced to 288.
The powers and duties of the municipalities relate to the provision of a
wide range of services and facilities: housing, roads, sewerage and
water supply, basic education, public assistance, care of the elderly,
child welfare, etc. They have the right to levy income taxes and
receive the revenue of a modest tax on real estate. They charge fees
for various services. Thus they are able, to a degree which appears
extensive when compared with other countries, to provide public
services at their own discretion. At the same time, they are bound by
law and regulations to provide a number of basic services.
Between national and municipal government there is a regional
level of government, composed of 23 counties. The national
administration in each of these counties is represented by a county
governor (landshvding) and a county administrative board. The
county governors are appointed by the Government for six-year terms;
they are often chosen from among politicians but normally leave the
political scene upon their appointment.
The most important business of a county administration is
transacted by the board, of which the county governor is chairman.
The board members are appointed by the county council.
For certain tasks of a fundamentally local character, each county
has an elected county council. These assemblies are responsible
primarily for health care, including the provision of hospital services,
certain types of education and vocational training. The county councils
are entitled to impose an income tax to cover their expenses.
Since the 1976 elections immigrants resident for three years in
Sweden have had the right to vote and run for office in local
electionsboth for municipalities and county councils.