The democratic system in Sweden

Last updated: 3 10 2018

Image Boken om Sverige
This material is from the book About Sweden.

Sweden is a representative democracy and is governed on the basis of a democratic structure at different levels of society. Sweden is also a monarchy. This means that we have a king or queen who is the country's head of state. However, the head of state has no political power and has a merely ceremonial role. It is the democratically elected politicians who run the country.

The Instrument of Government, which is the fundamental law that determines how Sweden is governed, begins with the sentence "All public power in Sweden proceeds from the people". This means that all decisions made a different levels of society have to be based on the opinions and interests on Sweden's inhabitants.

Decisions are made at three different political levels in Sweden. These levels are the municipalities, the county councils/regions and the central government. As Sweden is a member of the European Union (EU), there is also a level of decision-making above the central government. The EU is a European association of, at the moment, 28 countries. At all levels, there are politicians that the inhabitants have voted into power in general elections. These politicians are also called members. Politicians sit in the decision-making assemblies to which they are elected: municipal councils, county council/regional assembly, the Riksdag and the European Parliament.

In a democracy, it is important that there are built-in checks and balances so that corruption and misuse of power are avoided. One way to do this is to divide power between different actors, who are able to watch over one another in various ways. There are several examples of this in the democratic system in Sweden. One example is that municipalities and county councils are autonomous, which is one way to counteract Sweden becoming too centrally governed and the central government being the sole decision-making authority. One further example is that central government power is split between the Riksdag, which makes laws, the Government, which implements laws, and the courts, which judge based on the laws. The Riksdag also has the job of scrutinising and controlling the Government. If the Government neglects its duties, the Riksdag can force it to stand down. The fundamental laws provide the media and the general public with the opportunity to gain an insight into how Sweden is governed. All this contributes to Sweden suffering less corruption and misuse of power than many other countries.

The central government

The central government consists of the Riksdag, the Government and about 350 central government-owned companies and central government committees and authorities (the central government authorities). The Riksdag makes decisions about what is to be done in society, the Government then executes and implements these decision with the help of the Government Offices of Sweden and the central government authorities.

The Riksdag

The Riksdag is Sweden's parliament, which enact laws. It is the highest decision-making assembly in the country. The Riksdag is made up of political representatives elected by the Swedish voters at the national level. Political power is strongly linked to political parties as the members of the Riksdag are elected as representatives of political parties. The Riksdag has 349 members who are elected every four years. The Riksdag's most important tasks are:

  • making new laws and abolishing old ones,
  • setting the central government budget, i.e. determining the central government's annual income (taxes and fees) and expenditure,
  • scrutinising how the Government and the authorities are conducting their work, and
  • appointing a Prime Minister, who in turn forms a government.

The Swedish Government

The Government has executive authority. This involves being responsible for the day-to-day work of governing the country. This includes presenting proposals for the central government budget and setting guidelines for how the central government's money is to be used, leading the Swedish Armed Forces and being responsible, together with the Riksdag, for foreign policy. The Government Offices of Sweden, where a large number of civil servants work, is there to assist the Government.

It is usually the largest political party in the Riksdag, or two or more cooperating parties if no party has a majority, that form a government. The person appointed as Prime Minister by the Riksdag chooses which ministers will be responsible for different policy areas. Each minister in the Government heads a ministry. The ministry has various departments that are responsible for different areas. For example, the Ministry of Education and Research is responsible for issues concerning schools and education, and the Ministry of Culture for cultural matters among other things.

The central government authorities

The central government authorities consist of the Government, the courts and the administrative authorities. Examples of central government authorities are Arbetsförmedlingen, the Swedish Social Insurance Agency and the Swedish Transport Administration. The Government may not dictate how an authority is to use a law or make a decision in a case concerning an authority's work. The authorities are independent, but they have to comply with the laws and guidelines the Government decides on. In many other countries, it is common for a politician who is a government minister to have the power to directly intervene in the ongoing work of authorities. There is no such opportunity in Sweden. There are laws to prevent what is known as ministerial government.

The judicial system

The judicial system normally includes those authorities responsible for the rule of law and maintaining law and order. The courts are the foundations of the judicial system. The judicial system also encompasses the authorities responsible for preventing and investigating crime, e.g. the police and the Swedish Crime Victim Compensation and Support Authority.

The Swedish courts consists of over 80 different authorities and committees. There are three types of court in in Sweden: general courts, administrative courts and special courts. The courts can lay down punishments and settle disputes. The general courts consist of district courts, courts of appeal and the Supreme Court. The general courts handle matters including criminal cases, family cases and cases between companies or private individuals. The administrative courts consist of the administrative courts, the administrative courts of appeal and the Supreme Administrative Court. The administrative courts settle disputes, primarily between individuals and authorities. This can involve tax cases, cases involving aliens or citizenship (the migration courts), disputes with the Swedish Social Insurance Agency or the municipality.

The special courts settle disputes within various special areas, for example labour law or consumer issues.

Having your case tried in a impartial and independent court is a fundamental right of all those who live in Sweden. According to the Swedish constitution, the work of the courts is governed by the law, but they are otherwise independent. Neither members of the Riksdag nor ministers may influence the courts' decisions.

The rule of law means that all people are equal before the law. A person is to be considered innocent until s/he has been found guilty by a court. The rule of law is an important aspect of democracy and defines the judicial relationship between the individual and the state. The aim is for all people to be protected from being wronged by each other, by the authorities and their representatives and by society in general, and for all people to be guaranteed their rights and freedoms. Legislation must be unequivocal: it has to be clearly stated what is legal and what is illegal. Someone who commits a crime must be able to understand what the consequences will be for him or her.

Someone who believes that an authority such as the Swedish Social Insurance Agency or a municipality has made an incorrect decision can appeal this. The authority that has made the decision has to tell them how to appeal. This information is usually at the end of the text informing the person of the decision.

Photo: Patrik Svedberg (


Everyone in Sweden lives in a municipality. The country has 290 municipalities, all of which are autonomous in many ways. A municipality is led by a democratically elected municipal council and by boards and committees appointed by the municipal council. The Local Government Act specifies what the responsibilities and obligations of county councils/regions and municipalities are. The three biggest municipalities are Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, but there are many municipalities with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Municipalities can also be called cities.

The municipalities responsibilities include ensuring that there are schools, preschools and libraries, home-help services for older people and income support for those who require it. They also have to ensure that there is a fire brigade and street cleaning, they have to plan roads, housing, water and electricity. The municipalities require money to be able to deliver all these services. The municipality obtains income from municipal taxes, fees and grants from central government. Inhabitants who have an income pay tax in the municipality in which they are registered on the population register. The amount of tax someone pays depends on which municipality they live in and what their income is.

County councils, regions and counties

There are 21 counties in Sweden. There are a number of municipalities in each county. Each county has its own county administrative board. The Government appoints county governors who lead the county administrative boards. The county administrative boards are the Government's representatives in the counties. Their most important task is to achieve the goals the Riksdag and the Government have laid down, while also taking into account the circumstances of the individual county.

Sweden also has county councils (some county councils are called regions). The county council is a political organisation that covers the same geographical area as the county. The county councils have the right to impose tax and are responsible for certain public services, primarily healthcare. They are also involved in cultural issues, local public transport and regional planning. There are currently 20 county councils and regions in Sweden. The regions and county councils are led by a democratically elected assembly called the regional assembly or county council assembly. For example, it can be said that Region Västra Götaland is formally Västra Götaland County Council. 

The European Parliament in Brussels. Photo:

The EU

The EU is an economic and political partnership between a number of European countries. The EU was formed in the aftermath of the Second World War as an economic and political partnership between Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and what was then West Germany. The aim was to cooperate economically and politically in order to avoid further world wars, preserve peace and increase trade within Europe. One of the founding principles was that countries who trade with each other become economically dependent on each other and thus avoid conflict. It can be said that every member state has chosen to hand over a portion of their sovereignty to the EU in order to collectively gain greater influence in the world.

Sweden became a member of the EU in 1995. The EU now has 28 member states; these work together on matters such as the free movement of goods, services, capital and people, environmental protection and security and defence. Many of the member states have introduced the common currency, the euro; Sweden has not.

The EU has three important institutions that together make laws: The European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, which is also known as the Council of the European Union. All three are located in the capital of Belgium, Brussels, in the French city Strasbourg and in Luxembourg. The 28 member states cooperate in three different ways:

Supranational level

Decision that all member states have to comply with. This encompasses the laws made by the EU. EU legislation takes precedence over that of a member state. Many of the laws enacted are to make it easier to conduct business, travel and work within the EU. There is a court specifically for EU legislation. This is called the Court of Justice of the European Union and is located in Luxembourg.

Intergovernmental level

Voluntary cooperation between the 28 member states, without legislation. For example, when the EU decides on foreign policy and military interventions, this is done at the intergovernmental level.

National level

Each member state has the right to self-determination. However, all laws and regulations that countries enact must be consistent with what is stated in the laws and regulations there are at the supranational level.

Power is divided between many

Although formal political power is divided between different levels; municipality, county council and region, central government and the EU; there are several power centres in society that are of significance to the democratic system.

The mass media, the market and civil society are important actors and arenas in a democratic society.

The mass media (newspapers, radio, TV and internet) are independent of the state. This means that they are free to provide information about and scrutinise politicians and other people who have power in society. The mass media also have an important role in terms of creating a debate concerning topical social issues.

Radio Sweden (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are owned by foundations that are independent of the state. Their activities are paid for via the television and radio charge that households pay; this is known as the TV licence. The channels are therefore not funded by advertising or central government grants and are thus known as public service. Their job is to work in an impartial way and with a democratic basis. There are also several advertising-funded TV and radio channels in Sweden that scrutinise those in power, for example TV4.

The market consists of private companies and consumers that together influence the country's economy and labour market. Economic development in the enterprise sector has an impact on the state's tax income.

Civil society is the name given to a part of society in which people help each other without the direct involvement of the state. The primary motivation behind civil society is not money, as is the case with, for example, a company. Civil society is also sometimes called the non-governmental sector, the voluntary sector or the third sector. Examples of actors in civil society are charities, sports clubs and political parties that are neither directly funded by the state nor exist simply to earn money.

Popular movements in Sweden such as the labour movement or the temperance movement are examples of how civil society can be a powerful force in society, with neither the state nor the market being the driving forces. Civil society is an important part of a democratic society in which there are many way you as a member of the public can be involved in influencing society.

Democratic rights such as freedom of expression, of the press and of association are also, albeit indirectly, a call to citizens to get involved in politics. People can participate in politics in various ways, for instance by becoming involved in a political party, an organisation or an association in order to pursue various issues. People can contact various media in order to inform them about issues they find important. If you contact a journalist you have the right to have your anonymity protected. People can also contact politicians in the municipality where they live and offer suggestions or points of view about decisions that have been made.