The development of democracy

Last updated: 19 8 2021

About Sweden – an orientation about Swedish society.

Around a hundred years ago, all women and men of legal age were given the right to vote in Sweden. This was an important event in the development of Swedish democracy. Before then, only certain groups in society were allowed to vote in the elections to the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament. Among the things that determined if you could vote were your income and your gender. Swedish democracy has developed rapidly since then and continues to develop every day. Things we do today have an effect on democracy now and in the future. 

This text is about the development of democracy. It describes how democracy evolved in Europe and in Sweden and talks about some of the events that have been important for the development of democracy in Europe and in Sweden.

  • The right to influence and participate in the governing of one’s country

    Everyone has the right to participate in the governing of their country, either directly or by electing their representatives in free and fair elections.

    You are also entitled to freedom of opinion and expression. This means that you are free to have the views and think the thoughts you wish. You can also spread your ideas and thoughts to others, such as via social media. But you are not allowed to use your freedom of expression to spread hate and slander about other people and groups. You also have the right to organise and take part in peaceful gatherings, protest marches and associations. But you are also entitled not to participate in gatherings or protest marches, and not to be a member of any association.

The development of democracy in Europe

Europe's history is far from democratic. Before the establishment of democracy, Europe's various states were ruled by regents such as a prince, queen or king. European democracies emerged because people wanted a more equal distribution of power.

This text describes some events that were important for the development of democracy in Europe.

The Catholic church lost some of its power

The Catholic church had a lot of power for a number of centuries, particularly in western Europe. The regents who ruled thought they had been given their power by God and not by the people. In the early 16th century, there were many people who wanted to change the church. They felt that the Catholic church was more interested in power and money than in the Christian faith. Several regents wanted to free themselves of the Catholic church and have the greatest power for themselves. A number of European countries left the Catholic church and became Protestant. This change in religious power is known as the Reformation. It led to divisions and a weakening of the Christian church, particularly in Western Europe.

New ideas about humankind in the 18th and 19th centuries

The era known as the Enlightenment began in the 18th century. During this period, several important discoveries were made in the sciences. People began to turn away from the church when philosophers told them they could think for themselves and did not always have to do what the church or those in power said. People began having new ideas about how society should be structured. These ideas spread because more and more people could read.

Countries in Europe were inspired by revolutions in North America during the 18th century

The American revolution began when the people living in North America were not allowed to take part in decision-making in the British parliament. The British were at that time the colonial rulers of what is now the United States. The Americans started a revolution and gained independence after having defeated the British. The newly formed nation applied the ideas of the French philosopher Montesquieu for how a nation's government should be structured. There are three branches of government: the legislative branch, which makes decisions and enacts laws; the executive branch, which applies the decisions and makes sure the laws are obeyed; and the judicial branch, which interprets the laws and passes judgement based on the laws. This division of power became a very important model for many countries that would go on to become democracies.

The success of the American revolution inspired countries in Europe. In France, for example, many people were unhappy about the way the king ran the country. France was involved in several costly wars, and on top of that, the harvests had been bad for several years, so people had nothing to eat. The people wanted to have the right to take part in deciding how the country should be run. In the end, they rose up against the king in a revolution that began in 1789. It was a bloody revolution in which many people were executed, including the king and queen.

The French revolution was one of several important events that came to influence the development of democracy in Europe, including in Sweden. After the revolution, the French National Assembly adopted a new law, which stated that the power of government must come from the people, and that no person is of greater worth than any other. Still, it was mainly men who were given the new rights in France. Today, these rights apply to all people, not just to men.

The development of democracy in Sweden

Various events in Sweden influenced the emergence of democracy here, as well as what Swedish society looks like today. Certain events in the 19th and early 20th centuries were particularly important. They laid the foundations for modern, democratic Sweden.

But what was society like in Sweden before the country became a democracy? The king had a lot of power and was regarded as having been chosen by God. Most children did not go to school. Most adult men and women did not take part in deciding how Sweden should be governed. Changing this situation naturally took a long time.

The following text describes some events that were important for the development of democracy in Sweden.

The 18th century: The Age of Liberty and a new law on the freedom of the press

A new form of government was adopted in Sweden in the 18th century. The Riksdag (parliament) was divided into four groups, called estates: the nobility, the clergy, the burghers, and the peasantry. Each estate had one vote in decisions about new laws and taxes. The new Swedish Riksdag was not democratically elected, but more people were involved in making the decisions. Power became more widely distributed in society, and this was the beginning of a period of greater liberty, which is why it is known as the Age of Liberty (frihetstiden).

There were two parties in the Riksdag: the Hats (Hattarna), which were mainly the party of the nobility, and the Caps, (Mössorna) which were mainly the party of the lower social classes. The Age of Liberty ended in 1772 when King Gustav III seized power in a coup. This led to increased power for the king and reduced power for the Riksdag.

Sweden adopted a law on freedom of the press and of expression as early as in 1766. This law stated that everyone had the right to write, print and publish texts on almost anything. Before 1766 Sweden, had been a country with censorship, meaning you could only write and print things that those in power agreed with. All texts and books had to be approved before they could be printed. The law only applied for eight years (until Gustav III's coup), but it remains a milestone in the development of Swedish democracy.

1809: Sweden adopts a new constitution

Sweden underwent great changes in the 19th century. In 1809, the king was deposed, or removed from power. A new king was appointed and given less power. On 6 June of the same year, Sweden adopted a new constitution – the 1809 Instrument of Government. This constitution reduced the king's power. The Riksdag gained more power, and the courts of law became more independent. Sweden now celebrates its National Day on 6 June.

Even though power was divided between the king and the Riksdag, Sweden was not a developed democracy. But the new laws made it easier for Sweden to become more democratic. It became easier, for example, for people to say and write what they thought and felt.

The 1809 Instrument of Government applied formally until 1975. A new instrument of government, or constitution, was adopted in 1974 and is Sweden's current instrument of government.

1842: All children get to go to school

Compulsory primary education was introduced in Sweden in 1842 so that all children would receive an education. Many more people learned to read and write through primary education, which was an important condition for the development of democracy in Sweden.

1866: Introduction of a two-chamber Riksdag

In 1865, the four groups, or estates, in the Riksdag (nobility, clergy, burghers, and peasants) were abolished. The Riksdag was instead divided into two sections, or chambers, from 1866: the first chamber and the second chamber. Since 1971, the Swedish Riksdag has only one chamber.

The 19th and 20th centuries: the age of popular movements in Sweden

Many different popular movements were started in Sweden during the 19th century. People saw various problems in Swedish society: alcohol abuse, bad working conditions, bad housing, and the maltreatment of women. Many of these people felt that the problems could be solved if people collaborated. People who shared opinions could meet, organise themselves in associations and try to solve these problems together.

Many different popular movements emerged, including the temperance movement (against the consumption of alcohol), the free churches, the women's movement, the farmers' movement, the liberal universal franchise movement and the labour movement. Popular movements were important for democracy, in part because people in them learned how they could have an influence and affect policy-making. People in the movements held meetings, discussed issues and voted in order to make decisions – just as politicians did, and still do, in the Riksdag. These campaigns being fought outside of the Riksdag were unlike anything in the past. The people in the popular movements made their voices heard and challenged the state, the church and other centres of power.

1918–1921: the full emergence of democracy – universal and equal suffrage

Towards the end of the 19th century, people in Sweden began to organise themselves to fight for universal and equal suffrage, or the right to vote. Until then, only a small part of the Swedish population had been allowed to vote in elections to the Riksdag. What determined whether a person was allowed to vote was their wealth and whether they were a man or a woman. If you did not have a certain minimum wealth, or if you were a woman, you were not allowed to vote.

In 1909, the Riksdag introduced universal suffrage for men in Sweden. Men over the age of 24 who had paid their taxes and completed their military service were allowed to vote in the election to the second chamber of the Riksdag. Men who were in a workhouse or who had been in jail were not allowed to vote.

The first world war ended in the autumn of 1918, and Europe was once more at peace. Sweden had not fought in the war but was affected by it. Both men and women had to help out during the war, in the army, on farms, in factories and at home. Many felt that the people should be given voting rights as they had sacrificed much and contributed to the popular effort during the war.

In 1919, the Riksdag decided that women would also be allowed to vote in Riksdag elections. The election to the Riksdag in 1921 was the first one in which universal and equal suffrage applied. Both women and men were allowed to vote. Now each person's voice was of equal worth.

But did everyone really get to vote in 1921? No, only about 55 per cent of the population could vote. Several groups in society were not allowed to vote. These included people who were in prison, people with large tax debts, and people who had been declared incapacitated. Many people with functional impairments were not allowed to vote if a court had determined that they were incapacitated. In 1989, the term "incapacitated" (omyndig) was removed from Swedish legislation, which meant that a person could no longer be declared incapacitated. Since then, all Swedish citizens over the age of 18 are allowed to vote in elections to the Riksdag.