Sweden – a democracy and a state governed by law

Last updated: 13/12-2022

About Sweden – an orientation about Swedish society.

This text is about democracy and the principles on which a state governed by the rule of law is based.

It describes how Swedish democracy is structured and explains the Swedish constitution and the principles on which Swedish democracy is based, such as the right to vote, freedom of expression and the freedom of the press.

Several raised hands of different skin colours.

The country of Sweden is a democracy. Democracy means that the people are the ones who decide who is going to make laws and govern the country. The people have a lot of power in Sweden. This is not the case in all countries. Do you know of any country where a single person has all the power? That is how it used to be in Sweden as well, when the king had all the power.

Democracy in Sweden has developed over a period of a century, and is a fundamental feature of the country. The politicians in power have been elected by the people. Politicians and government agencies have to work to ensure that the people are well – otherwise they can lose their jobs. It is illegal for politicians and public officials to accept money from anyone who wants to influence them and use their power to gain advantages for themselves or others. That is known as corruption. Politicians have to help the people, not enrich or improve their own lives.

But democracy is not just about politics. Democracy also has to apply in school, in the workplace and in associations. This does not mean that pupils make the decisions in schools or that workers decide their own work tasks. But if a teacher, a manager or another person does something wrong and treats you or someone else badly, democracy makes it possible to stop them.

Have you experienced a politician or public official doing something wrong and not treating everyone the same way?

People have been discussing democracy for several thousand years. It is difficult to describe democracy in a way that everyone can agree on. Most people agree that it is about letting people participate in making decisions. It is also about the division of power between the state, the population and the politicians, and about ensuring that this division is done in a fair, equal and legal way.

Sweden’s statute book, with a judge’s gavel on top.

Fundamental laws

Fundamental laws are the highest level of laws, and they specify the fundamental rules of a society or country. No other laws may contravene (go against) the fundamental laws. Sweden has four fundamental laws which together make up the Swedish constitution:

  • the Instrument of Government (targets and rules for how the state should be organised and governed)
  • the Freedom of the Press Act (protects freedom of speech in print)
  • the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression (the right to express yourself and state your opinion)
  • the Act of Succession (specifies how the royal crown is inherited when the current king or queen dies)

The fundamental laws are intended to protect democracy and are therefore more difficult to change than other laws. Here are some examples of how democracy is protected in Sweden:

Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression means that:

  • Everyone is allowed to form their own opinion
  • Everyone must be able to share and receive information
  • Everyone has the right to spread opinions

Freedom of expression also means that you must be able to express yourself without being monitored or silenced. You must be able to follow news about your country and home town. You must be able to join associations and you must be able to express your opinion together with others in public, as in a demonstration. You must also be able to discuss your views and write to politicians.

Crimes intended to reduce the worth or dignity of other people or groups of people are forbidden. These crimes are known as hate crimes. One type of hate crime is known as incitement to racial or ethnic hatred, and are messages that use hate speech. You are not allowed, for instance, to say anything that is disparaging of a particular ethnic group.

Nor are you allowed to say anything that could threaten Sweden's security or urge someone else to commit a crime. If you do, you may be guilty of a crime.

A young man speaking to an audience in a town square.

Why is there a fundamental law about freedom of expression?

What is important for us to be allowed to talk about?

The right to vote

The right to vote means that:

  • Everyone can vote in general and regular elections
  • All votes must be counted and have the same value
  • Politicians who lose the election must voluntarily hand over power to those who won

Everyone who has turned 18 years of age is entitled to vote in elections in Sweden. It is the outcome of the elections that determines which political parties are going to govern the country. Your vote carries the same weight as everyone else's. All elections are secret. This means that you are not obliged to tell anyone who you voted for. You also have the right not to vote.

The principle of legality

The principle of legality means that:

  • Politicians and government agencies are controlled by laws
  • Corruption is forbidden
  • Incorrect decisions can be appealed in a court of law

Sweden is a state governed by the rule of law. The Swedish constitution states that all inhabitants must be treated with respect for their liberty, dignity and their equal worth. Politicians and government agencies may not treat certain inhabitants worse than others on the basis of their gender, skin colour, culture, religion, language, age, functional ability, sexual orientation or transgender identity. Violence and harassment between different inhabitants, for example, in the workplace or within the family, are forbidden. In most cases, such behaviour is punishable by law.

The laws' guarantee of equal treatment means that, for example:

  • Everyone is equal before the law. It must not make any difference whether you are rich or poor, man or woman, ill or healthy.
  • Everyone must follow the laws that exist. This includes politicians, police officers and everyone who works at government agencies.
  • The police cannot imprison you without reason. You are entitled to know why.
  • If you have committed a crime or are accused of a crime, you are entitled to have it investigated. You are also entitled to a lawyer who will help you and defend you.

Freedom of the press

Freedom of the press means that:

  • It must be possible to scrutinize politicians and government agencies
  • The news is not controlled by politicians
  • False accusations and rumours must be countered

Freedom of the press means that radio, television and newspapers may publish news and information without getting official approval first. As a private individual, you are also entitled to print and distribute texts without having to have them inspected first. Still, you are not allowed to spread certain types of texts. You may be accused of a crime if you spread texts that disparage another ethnic group, are a threat to Sweden's security, or urge someone else to commit a crime.

Do you think that the media, such as radio, television and newspapers, can influence politicians?

And can politicians influence the media? If so, how?

Above, we have listed some things that are important for a democracy. The Swedish people have fought hard to make Sweden a democracy.

There are people in every country who think that people should have less power, and who want to be able to influence other people. There are such people in Sweden as well. It is important, therefore, that we never stop fighting for all the good things that a democracy has, because things can change quickly. Do you know of any country that had a democracy and then lost it?

We build democracy together, and you are an important part of that. You can join an association or a political party in order to fight alongside others for things you think are important. You are entitled to organise or take part in meetings and demonstrations. In order for democracy to survive, we have to get involved – not just when there are elections, but continuously.

In what way can you influence things in society?