The history of the Riksdag

How long has there been a parliament in Sweden? The answer to that question is not entirely straightforward. It depends on how we define a parliament. But it was not until after the election of 1921 that Sweden achieved a system of full democratic representation for all its citizens.

In as early as 1435, a meeting was called in the town of Arboga to discuss and determine a number of affairs affecting the country as a whole. The Arboga meeting is therefore sometimes referred to as Sweden's first parliament.

However, it was not until 1527 and 1544 at King Gustav Vasa's two assemblies in Västerås that representatives of all four estates – the Nobility, the Clergy, the Burghers and the Peasantry – were called on to participate. The term "Riksdag" was first used in the 1540s.

You can read more about some important events in the history of the Riksdag here.

The committees begin to emerge

The 17th century saw the establishment of clearer parliamentary procedures. The committee organisation began to emerge.

Regulations were drawn up determining who was to be called to the Riksdag and when the Riksdag should meet.

In the late 1600s, King Karl XI gained increasing power, which meant that the Riksdag's position was weakened, and that it in principle became a malleable tool in the hands of the King.

Hats and caps

During the Age of Freedom in the 18th Century, the pendulum swung once again in favour of the Riksdag, and the power shifted to the four Estates.

A party system began to evolve with two parties known as the Hats and the Caps. A parliamentary system with certain similarities to that of today emerged. The working traditions of today's Riksdag, particularly those of the committees, have their roots in the Age of Freedom.

The position of the Riksdag was successively weakened by economic crises, antagonisms between the Estates and corruption. After King Gustav III's bloodless coup d'état in 1772, more and more power was shifted into the hands of the King and the Riksdag lost its power and influence as a result.

A new Constitution with a separation of powers

In 1809 a new constitution was adopted in Sweden. It set out how the power was to be divided between the Riksdag and the King.

The courts and public authorities were granted an independent status. Sweden was also the first country in the world to establish the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsmen in 1809. The Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsmen was a body to which citizens could now turn with complaints about authorities.

One of the new fundamental laws in 1809 was the Instrument of Government. The principle of a separation of powers had a large influence on the Instrument of Government. It meant that an ever greater distinction was made between legislative, judicial and executive power.

The Instrument of Government from 1809 remained in force until 1974, despite numerous changes over the years. The Riksdag Act, which is a law setting out the procedures for the work of the Riksdag, was introduced in 1810.

The bicameral Riksdag

Between 1809 and 1974, substantial changes were made to the Constitution to ensure the representation of the newly emerging social classes.

In 1865, the Parliament of the four Estates was abolished and replaced by a bicameral (two-chamber) system. The members of the First Chamber were elected indirectly by the county councils and the municipal assemblies in the larger towns and cities. It was considered to represent "education and wealth". Only men were eligible for election on the basis of certain criteria relating to age, income and wealth. For election to the Second Chamber, eligibility was limited to men, and voters had to own real property or to have paid tax on an annual taxable income.

Under the municipal laws of 1862, some women were entitled to vote in local elections: those who were of age, unmarried and who either had an income of their own above a certain level or owned a certain amount of property. The franchise reform of 1907–09 made women who had the vote eligible for election to local assemblies. In 1918, universal and equal suffrage in local elections was introduced.

Universal suffrage

Why didn't everyone in Sweden enjoy the right to vote? From the 1860s a lively debate emerged on the question of voting rights, and demands for universal suffrage became increasingly vociferous. The first private member's motion on equal political rights for women and men was put before the Riksdag in 1884, but it was rejected. In later years, the issue was raised persistently in various motions, but in vain.

In 1909, a reform was passed in the Riksdag giving Swedish men the right to vote in elections to the Second Chamber. The first Government bill on suffrage and eligibility for election to the Riksdag for women was submitted in 1912 by the Staaff Government. It was, however, outvoted in the predominantly conservative First Chamber. Outside the Riksdag a powerful movement for women's suffrage was taking shape, often through special suffrage societies. In a historical perspective, suffrage has been one of the women's movement's major issues.

The 1921 election

Under the pressure of the revolutionary wave that shook Europe at the end of the First World War, the Riksdag approved universal and equal suffrage for women and men on 24 May 1919. The reform was implemented on the basis of proposals prepared by a coalition government of Liberals and Social Democrats. After the election of 1921, five women entered the Riksdag; this is when the Riksdag finally achieved a system of democratic representation for the whole of the Swedish people.

However, it was still possible for certain groups to be excluded from the eligibility to vote after 1921. A requirement that continued to apply was that men had to have completed national military service in order to be able to vote. This requirement was abolished in 1922 following a decision by the Riksdag. Interns in prisons and institutions were not granted suffrage until 1937. Individuals who had gone into bankruptcy or were dependent on economic support in the form of relief for the poor did not acquire voting rights until 1945. The final limitation of the franchise disappeared in 1989 when the Riksdag abolished what is known as 'declaration of legal incompetency'.

Alongside the universal franchise reform, a parliamentary system of government developed and gained acceptance. This means that the Government requires the Riksdag's confidence and support in order to govern the country.

The unicameral Riksdag

In 1971, the bicameral system was abandoned and a single chamber with 350 members was introduced.

Changes were also made to the organisation of the parliamentary committees. The system of different committees for legislative and budgetary matters was abandoned and 16 committees for different specialised areas were established instead.

Three years later, in 1974, Sweden adopted a new Constitution. The principles of parliamentarianism were incorporated into the Constitution and the Speaker acquired a central role in the formation of a new government following an election.

Decisions by lottery

There were obvious drawbacks with having 350 members, a system that had been introduced in 1971, and the disadvantages of having an even number of members soon became evident.

In the 1973 Riksdag election, the socialist and non-socialist blocs received 175 seats each. This meant that several decisions in the Riksdag had to be determined by lottery.

On 10 January 1975, the ceremonial opening of the Riksdag, which from that year onwards was called the opening of the Riksdag session, was held in temporary premises at Sergels Torg. The 1975 Riksdag session continued only during the spring following a decision to move the beginning of the Riksdag's working year from the spring to the autumn.

Consequently, the 1975/76 Riksdag session was opened on 15 October 1975. Ever since the 1976/77 session, the Chamber has had 349 members.

Four-year electoral period

Two important decisions were taken in 1994. The first was to extend the electoral period from three to four years and the second to make the budget procedure more efficient.

The latter means that the budget year now coincides with the calendar year and that the Budget Bill is presented and considered by the Riksdag during the autumn.