The Constitution – also known as Sweden’s fundamental laws – are special laws which regulate how Sweden shall be governed. The fundamental laws are designed to protect our democracy and are therefore more difficult to amend than other laws.
Sweden has four fundamental laws: the Instrument of Government, the Act of Succession, the Freedom of the Press Act and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression. In addition, Sweden has a Riksdag Act which has an intermediate position between constitutional and ordinary law.
Of the four fundamental laws, the Instrument of Government sets out the most fundamental principles of our democracy. The Instrument of Government describes how the country is to be governed and the protection of all citizens’ rights and freedoms.
The Freedom of the Press Act lays down that we are free to publish books, newspapers and other printed documents as we wish, without censorship. The Freedom of the Press Act also gives all citizens the right to access documents from public agencies and courts.
The Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression protects the right to broadcast radio and television and to publish texts, images and films on the Internet. Together with the Freedom of the Press Act, the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression protects the people’s freedom of expression and freedom of opinion.
The Act of Succession contains the rules on who can become King or Queen in Sweden. The current King is Sweden’s head of state, but his duties are of a representative nature and he has no political power.
More difficult to amend than ordinary law
The fundamental laws are more difficult to amend than other laws. There should be time for reflection and ensuring that the consequences have been thoroughly considered before changes are made. The purpose is to protect our democracy. The procedure is designed to ensure that the Riksdag does not take any hasty decisions that can limit people’s rights and freedoms.
To make an amendment to a fundamental law, the Riksdag must adopt two decisions of identical wording with a general election between the two decisions. The voters should have the opportunity to adopt a position on the proposal for amendment and to elect the Riksdag with the same beliefs as them on the matter.
It is possible to call a referendum on a constitutional matter. If the Riksdag has taken its first decision regarding an amendment to fundamental law, it can decide to call a referendum on the matter. The results of a referendum of this kind are only binding if a majority vote against the proposal. In this case, the Riksdag cannot make an amendment to the Constitution. The possibility to hold a referendum on constitutional matters was introduced in 1980, but has never been made use of.
The Instrument of Government
All public power in Sweden proceeds from the people and the Riksdag is the foremost representative of the people. This is stated in the Instrument of Government – the fundamental law setting out the basic principles of our democracy. The Instrument of Government describes how the country is to be governed, our democratic rights, and how public power is to be divided.
Written rules determining how Sweden shall be governed have existed ever since the 14th century. The first Instrument of Government was enacted in 1634. In 1809, an Instrument of Government was adopted which set out, among other things, a certain division of powers between the King and the Riksdag. A parliamentary system, that is, that the Government governs the country with the support of Parliament, started to apply after the end of the First World War, but it was not written into the Constitution until 1969.
The power of the King has diminished successively over the years. When the current Instrument of Government came into force in 1974, the King was stripped of all political power and left with symbolic duties.
Starts with the foundations of democratic society
The Instrument of Government opens by setting out the foundations of democratic society and establishes that all public power in Sweden proceeds from the people. This means that the citizens exercise an influence through the politicians who are elected to represent them in the Riksdag, municipalities and regions. This is known as representative democracy. The opening chapter also states that the Riksdag enacts the laws, the King or Queen shall be head of state, the Government governs the country and the courts shall observe objectivity and impartiality.
The citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms are central to the Instrument of Government. Among other things, the Instrument of Government lays down that all citizens have freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to demonstrate, freedom of association and freedom of religion. It also sets out, for example, that capital punishment and discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin, skin colour, sexual orientation or gender are prohibited in Sweden.
The Instrument of Government describes in general terms how the Riksdag is elected and how its work shall be organised. The procedures for forming a government and rules relating to the work of the Government are also set out. It contains the rules for what may only be decided by the Riksdag and what may be decided by the Government. Furthermore, it sets out how the Riksdag goes about amending the Constitution.
One of the Riksdag’s tasks is to monitor and examine the work of the Government. The Instrument of Government contains provisions on the Riksdag’s parliamentary control functions.
It also contains rules regarding international cooperation and rules relating to the courts and public authorities. The fact that self-government applies in Sweden’s municipalities is also set out in the Instrument of Government.
The Freedom of the Press Act
The freedom of the press is an important democratic right in Sweden. It means that everyone is free to publish books, journals and newspapers as they wish. The public authorities have no right to examine or censor what has been written in advance.
Anyone has the right to disseminate whatever information they like in printed form, provided that they follow the law. While the Freedom of the Press Act gives us the right to express ourselves freely, it also protects us against defamation and insulting language or behaviour. If, for example, someone writes something that may be considered to be agitation against a population group, such as racist comments, or publishes images with elements of sexual violence, this may be regarded as a violation of the Freedom of the Press Act. The same applies if the state or society is threatened through the publication of information that may, for example, be regarded as espionage.
The principle of public access to official documents
The Freedom of the Press Act also contains provisions on the principle of public access to official documents. According to this principle, everyone is entitled to access official documents, provided that they do not contain information that is subject to secrecy. The principle of public access to official documents is a guarantee for those wishing to gain an insight into the work of the Riksdag, Government, public authorities and municipalities. Everyone is entitled to contact a public authority and request a copy of an official document. A person requesting access to an official document does not need to provide their name or any details of how the document will be used.
The Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression
In Sweden, you have the right to say almost anything you want. You have the right to express yourself freely on the radio, television and Internet. The Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression sets out these rights. It also describes what is not permitted, for example defaming or publicly insulting another person.
The Law has been extended to keep pace with the development of new media. If something is conveyed that may be regarded as agitation against a population group or if a film is shown which contains elements of sexual violence, these may be possible offences against the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression. The same applies to possible threats to the security of the country or society through the publication of something involving, for example, espionage.
Radio, television, films and new media
The Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression applies to radio, television, films, sound and picture recordings, video and CD recordings, as well as websites and blogs with a journalistic focus. If your website has an editor, it is possible to apply for a certificate of no legal impediment to publication which provides the website with protection under the Constitution.
Censorship is not permitted
Public authorities are not permitted to examine what is broadcast on the radio, television or via another form of technical recording in advance. The exception is films shown at the cinema, which is the only form of media for which prior examination by the state is permitted. The Swedish Media Council can classify films for public screening to children and young people, giving them different age ratings.
The Act of Succession
King Carl XVI Gustaf is Sweden’s current head of state. The Instrument of Government sets out that we shall have a King or Queen as head of state. However, it is the Act of Succession that contains the rules on who shall succeed to the throne.
Female and male succession to the throne
Male and female descendants of King Carl XVI Gustaf have the right to succeed to the throne. Older siblings and their descendants take priority over younger siblings and their descendants.
Sweden had male succession right until 1979, when the Riksdag decided that female heirs shall have an equal right to the throne and can also become head of state.
The Riksdag Act - almost a fundamental law
The Riksdag Act contains rules regarding the work procedures of the Riksdag. Until 1974, the Riksdag Act was a fundamental law. Today, however, it occupies an intermediate position between fundamental law and ordinary law.
The main provisions of the Riksdag Act can be amended either by means of two identically worded Riksdag decisions with an election in between or by means of a single Riksdag decision taken by qualified majority. A qualified majority in this case means that at least three-quarters of those voting, and over half of the members of the Riksdag, must vote in favour of a decision for it to come into effect.
The Riksdag Act deals, for example, with how meetings of the Chamber are to be conducted and the rules that apply as regards the Speakers’ duties in the Chamber. It also sets out the procedures for the appointment and work of the 15 parliamentary committees. How proposals to the Riksdag are submitted, prepared and determined is also regulated in the Riksdag Act.
2017 marked the 400th anniversary of the very first Riksdag Act, enacted in 1617. The publication The Riksdag Act 400 years describes how the rules relating to the work of the Riksdag have developed through the ages, and the challenges facing today’s politicians.