A referendum is where an electorate can vote directly on a political matter. The decision to hold a national referendum is made by the Riksdag. Referendums can also be held in municipalities and regions.

There are two types of referendums in Sweden which apply to the country as a whole, i.e., national referendums: consultative referendums and referendums on matters of constitutional law, which in some cases can be binding.

If the referendum is consultative, the final decision is made by others. In the case of a national referendum, the decision is generally made by parliament, whereas the municipal council, or its equivalent in the area covered by the referendum, makes the decision in the case of a local referendum. In the case of a binding referendum concerning a constitutional law, the results may in some cases become binding immediately.

In Sweden, it is primarily the Riksdag that determines matters affecting the whole country. Referendums that apply to the whole country are only held in exceptional cases. This is why only the Riksdag can take a decision on whether a national referendum should be held.

Consultative referendums

It is the Riksdag that decides whether a referendum is to be held nationally. A special law is made determining both the questions to be put and the date of the referendum. Unless otherwise stipulated, the right to vote is the same as for elections to the Riksdag. On the whole, the same rules usually apply in national referendums as in elections to the Riksdag in terms of the right to vote, electoral districts and voting.

Consultative referendums are not binding. In other words, the Riksdag can take a decision that goes against the outcome of the referendum. Their purpose is to provide guidance prior to a decision by the Riksdag.

Six national referendums

The possibility of holding consultative referendums was introduced in 1922 and was used the very same year on the matter of prohibition. Six national referendums have been held in total in Sweden:

  • In 1922 on prohibition
  • In 1955 on driving on the right
  • In 1957 on the national supplementary pension (ATP)
  • In 1980 on nuclear energy
  • In 1994 on membership of the EU
  • In 2003 on the introduction of the euro

Results can be difficult to interpret

It may sometimes be difficult to interpret the results of a referendum, especially in cases where there are more than two alternatives, as in the referendum on the supplementary pension scheme in 1957 and the referendum on nuclear energy in 1980, where there were three alternatives in each case. In this case it is the task of the Riksdag to interpret the results.

In the case of the last two referendums, on membership of the European Union and the introduction of the euro in Sweden, there were two alternatives: yes or no to EU membership and yes or no to the introduction of the euro. Although in a formal sense these referendums were consultative, in practice they became binding, as the parliamentary parties had previously committed themselves to act in accordance with the outcome.

Referendums on constitutional matters

Since 1980, it has been possible to hold referendums on constitutional matters. These may concern pending changes in the Constitution or the approval of international agreements affecting rights and obligations protected by the Constitution. No referendum on a constitutional matter has yet been held.

Two Riksdag decisions with an election intervening

To make any changes to the constitutional laws, two decisions by the Riksdag are needed with an intervening election. After the first decision has been taken, the proposed change remains pending and may not be considered again until a new Riksdag has been elected. The change in the Constitution is confirmed if the newly-elected Riksdag ratifies the first decision; otherwise it is rejected.

Referendums on constitutional proposals require the support of 35 members

The Riksdag may decide to hold a referendum on a constitutional matter pending decision. For this, at least 35 members of the Riksdag have to request a referendum. Subsequently, it is enough for one third of the members of the Riksdag, that is 117 members, to vote for the proposed referendum. If the proposal succeeds, the referendum must be held at the same time as the next parliamentary election.

This type of referendum is subject to the same rules concerning the right to vote, voting and voting slips as in parliamentary elections.

Only a no is binding

The outcome of the referendum is binding if a majority of voters reject the proposal and at the same time constitute more than half of those who have cast valid votes in the parliamentary election. If this majority is obtained, then the proposed change has been defeated, and the newly-elected Riksdag may not consider it a second time.

If the proposal is not rejected in a referendum by the majority stipulated, then the proposed constitutional change is considered in the usual way by the newly-elected Riksdag. The decision to accept or reject the pending change is taken by a simple majority.

The outcome of the referendum is, thus, binding only if a majority of the voters are against the proposal. It is therefore possible for a constitutional change that has been approved by a majority of those taking part in the referendum to be rejected by the Riksdag.

Referendums at the local level

Referendums held in municipalities and regions are always consultative. If requested by ten per cent of those entitled to vote, the municipal or regional council must examine whether a referendum is to be held. However, if two thirds of the councillors subsequently vote against the initiative, the referendum cannot take place.

A municipal or regional council can themselves decide to ask those living in the municipality or region for their opinion regarding an important matter by means of a referendum. The council may restrict the referendum to a certain district of the municipality or region. In such cases, those living in the area where the referendum is to take place, and who are also eligible to vote in municipal elections, are entitled to vote. 

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