From things and assemblies to the Riksdag of today

Our modern democracy has existed for approximately one hundred years. However, the roots of Sweden’s representative democracy go back further than that. On this page, you can read more about the history of the Riksdag.

Early signs

Sweden began to development as a sovereign state approximately one thousand years ago, when the country was united under the same King. At that time, Sweden was divided into a number of provinces with their own laws, courts and lawmen. Royal power was a remote concept in the villages and towns. The inhabitants identified themselves with their towns, parishes, county districts and provinces rather than the kingdom.

Sweden as a state began to take an increasingly tangible form in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the first national constitution that was valid throughout the country was drawn up around 1350. One person (the ruling monarch) decided, together with the most powerful men, over the rest of the people. At least in theory, the King ruled the whole country. He had the right to receive taxes that were primarily to be used to defend the country.

Closely associated with royal power were the national laws - one law book for the towns and another for the rural areas. The kings devoted a considerable amount of time to travelling the country and judging various legal cases at provincial and “hundred” tings (courts). Here landowning men met to take decisions and administer justice. Traces of these meeting places can be found in today’s municipalities, regions, county councils and district courts.

The Estates

During the 13th century, a society based on different estates and characterised by strict social roles and hierarchies started to develop. The Four Estates (Nobility, Clergy, Burghers and Peasantry) had clearly separate duties, privileges and rights. The Nobility were highest in rank while the Peasantry were lowest.

Crofters, farm hands, maids and others without property enjoyed no political influence. Women lacked voting rights as well as many other rights. Strict gender roles meant that it was virtually unthinkable for women to be involved in politics.

How long has there been a parliament in Sweden?

There is no simple answer to that question. It depends on how we define a parliament. The 1435 Arboga Meeting has, for example, been referred to as Sweden’s first parliament. A number of important questions that concerned the country as a whole were decided there.


Today, however, many historians regard Gustav Vasa’s national assembly in Västerås in 1527 as the first parliament. Only then can we talk about a parliament representing, at any rate, certain sections of the population, through the Four Estates – the Nobility, the Clergy, the Burghers and the Peasantry. During this period everyone was regarded as being represented through the estate they belonged to. The actual term “Riksdag” was first used in the 1540s.

Gustav Vasa

Gustav Vasa was elected King on 6 June 1523. This meant that the union between Sweden, Denmark and Norway, established in Kalmar in 1397, was dissolved and Sweden became a sovereign state with its own regent. Gustav Vasa was ruthless in beating back his opponents in Sweden, but at the same time he succeeded in strengthening the state. Together with the Nobility, the Burghers and the Peasantry, he initiated the break with the Catholic Church at the 1527 Västerås Assembly by proclaiming a shift to Protestantism.

The break with the Roman Catholic Church had far-reaching consequences.  The bishops, who had been highly influential, lost their positions and their power. In the new state Church, the parish priests became spokespersons for the King.

The introduction of hereditary monarchy, that is, that Gustav Vasa’s heirs would inherit the throne, was approved at the Riksdag of 1544. The Riksdag took part in these decisions, but the King was the driving force. As the Riksdags were short and several years often passed before they were reconvened, the political power of the Riksdag remained relatively weak.


A new role for the Riksdag

In the 1620s, Sweden was ruled by warrior king Gustav II Adolf, with the support of his Chancellor, the diplomat and pioneering administrator Axel Oxenstierna. Their project was to make Sweden into a military power that could assert itself among the other great powers around the Baltic.

The Riksdag assumed a new and important role as it was frequently required to approve the new taxes and soldiers needed to realise this project. In general, the Four Estates gave their approval, both as a result of pressure and because the King succeeded in painting a picture of Sweden as being threatened from every direction.

The Riksdags were no longer few and far between; during certain periods they were convened once or twice a year. As a consequence, the members of the Riksdag gained both experience and proficiency, and eventually they were able to pursue their own policies in a way that had not been possible in the 16th century. 

An important aspect (in particular for the untitled Estates) was the petitions they could submit to the King during the Riksdags. These were written communications containing requests for improvements, tax reductions, complaints concerning royal officials, etc.  Notably often, the royal power granted these requests, provided the demands were limited.

During the Carolingian autocracy in the late 17th century, King Karl XI started to gain increasing power. The position of the Riksdag was weakened and, in effect, it became a malleable tool in the hands of the King. During the autocratic rule of Karl XII (1697-1718), the Riksdag met just twice - against the King’s wishes.


The Riksdag gains influence

A series of wars led to widespread devastation and poverty in Sweden. The warrior kings and nobility in the Council of the Realm were regarded as responsible for this. With the death of Karl XII in 1718, the power shifted to the Riksdag.

All major decisions were thereafter taken by the Riksdags, which were to be convened every three years. During the Age of Freedom, the meetings of the Riksdag often continued for about a year, on account of the large number of matters they dealt with.

Between these meetings, the Council of the Realm ruled the country. The Council can be described as the government of the day. It consisted of the King and 16 noblemen, almost all of whom were high-ranking officers and public servants. When the Riksdags convened, they ensured that the Council had carried out its duties in accordance with the Riksdag’s instructions. Otherwise, sanctions could be imposed.

Many of the working traditions of today’s Riksdag have their roots in this period, particularly those of the committees, which now became central to the work of the Riksdag. A party system began to evolve, with two parties known as the Hats and the Caps. At the same time, a new parliamentary form of government emerged, with certain similarities to that of today.

Since 1719-23, Sweden has been a constitutionally governed state. The new Instruments of Government and the new Riksdag Act had been drawn up and adopted by the Riksdag itself. Up until the time of Karl XII’s death, the King was considered to rule in the name of God, but under the new order, the Riksdag ruled the country in the name of the people. Instead of regarding the law as permanent, it came to be viewed as a tool with which to change society.

In 1734, the Riksdag adopted a new law book for the whole country. With the end of the Age of Greatness, the idea emerged of the state as an institution that should be of benefit for everyone – not just as a military instrument for the kings.

In 1766, the Riksdag enacted Sweden’s first Freedom of the Press Act. This act became a fundamental law and was unique in an international perspective. Prior censorship was abolished and the principle of public access to official documents was introduced. Various newspapers, political pamphlets and publications with material from public authorities and courts saw the light of day.

The main driving force for the Freedom of the Press Act had been the desire of the political opposition to reveal unsatisfactory practices and corruption in the state administration during the long rule of the Hats party.

The Riksdag was powerful, but the majority of the Swedish population was still without voting rights. Electoral fraud was common, and the Nobility, Clergy and Burghers dominated in the Riksdag, despite the fact that they represented just a small proportion of the population.

The Riksdag of the Estates during the Age of Freedom (1719-1772)

Over the centuries, there were several changes as regards the power and work procedures of the Riksdag of the Estates. From the early 18th century, each of the Four Estates had one vote when decisions were taken. In the majority of cases, it was therefore necessary for three of the Estates to reach consensus for a decision to be taken.

The Peasantry

Represented almost 95 per cent of the population. The estate was represented in the Riksdag by approximately 150 peasants who were elected in “hundred” (county district) courts around the country.

The Burghers

Consisted of craftsmen and merchants from the towns (almost 2 per cent of the population). The Burghers sent one mayor and several councilmen from each town. In total, they sent around 100 representatives to the meetings of the Riksdag.

The Clergy

Represented just under one per cent of the population. The Estate’s 50 or so members of the Riksdag consisted of bishops and elected vicars.

The Nobility

Represented approximately 0.5 per cent of the population. All of the approximately 1,200 noble families belonging to the House of the Nobility were entitled to send one representative each. About 500 nobles were present when the Riksdag met.

However, the position of the Riksdag was once again successively weakened by economic crises, antagonisms between the Estates and corruption. After King Gustav III’s 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.


Sweden changes and a new Constitution regulates the division of power

Sweden underwent rapid changes in the 19th century. Processes to establish more efficient agriculture were introduced and many individuals without property moved to the towns where industries were developing. The royal power and Riksdag of the Estates were out of step with the new society that was emerging. Revolutions, wars of independence and the concept of the equal value of all people spread across the world. The people demanded increased freedom and a greater influence in politics.

A new Instrument of Government was introduced in 1809, with inspiration from Sweden’s earlier history and the Age of Enlightenment’s principle of a division of power. This meant that there was an increasing separation of powers between the legislature, the judiciary and the executive.

The basic idea was that the King and the ministers appointed by him should share the power with the Riksdag. On the one hand, the King should “alone govern the realm” according to the Instrument of Government, while the Riksdag had unrestricted right over taxation. The legislative power would be shared between the King and Riksdag.

The judicial power – the courts – would consist of judges appointed for life who were to comply with the laws and not take orders from any political instance.

In addition, Sweden was the first country in the world to create the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman in 1809, to which citizens could turn with complaints about the public authorities. To ensure that the King and Government acted in compliance with the law, the Riksdag also established a Committee on the Constitution.

The 1809 Instrument of Government, albeit with fundamental changes, was not replaced until 1974. The law that regulated the work of the Riksdag – the Riksdag Act – was enacted in 1810.

The days of the autocratic monarchy were over. Increasing power was transferred to the Riksdag, and the courts became more independent. The Riksdag kept the system of Four Estates, but the King still ruled the country. He appointed all the government ministers and could take decisions that conflicted with a majority of members of the Riksdag, except as regards legislation and taxation.

Introduction of the bicameral Riksdag

With time, dissatisfaction with the old Riksdag of the Estates grew. Peasants, businessmen and other members of the middle classes became increasingly important for the country’s economy. But their political power in the Riksdag was relatively limited.

In 1866, the Riksdag of the Estates was replaced with a bicameral (two-chamber) Riksdag, which meant that voting rights, eligibility to stand for election and the political power in the Riksdag was no longer connected to the Four Estates. Members of the Second Chamber now received a small pay, which made it possible for people without capital assets to work as members of the Riksdag.

The Riksdag was, in other words, divided into two Chambers, and a decision needed to be taken in both Chambers for a proposal to be approved. While the Second Chamber was intended to be closer to the people, where public opinions could quickly gain influence, the First Chamber was to be more cautious and reflective.


Voting rights, eligibility for election and qualifications

When the right to vote was separated from membership of an Estate, there were many who considered that the growing democratic forces needed to be reined in. Neither the King nor the majority of members of the Riksdag wanted full democracy with universal and equal suffrage. A number of voting and eligibility qualifications were therefore introduced.

The qualifications described conditions that the individual needed to meet, both to have the right to vote and to stand for election. These conditions primarily concerned gender, age and economy. In addition, there were several types of “orderliness qualifications”. These qualifications were used to exclude prisoners, people who did not pay tax, those receiving support or on poor relief schemes, those who had been declared bankrupt and men who had not completed military service. The purpose was to allow only mature and responsible men to participate in politics.

In the elections to the First Chamber, wealthier persons had more votes. To be elected to the First Chamber, one needed to have reached the age of 35 and to have considerable assets – these members received no payment for their work in the Riksdag. Unlike the Second Chamber, the First Chamber was successively replaced, and the members’ term of office was longer.

The Second Chamber was elected according to the principle one man – one vote. However, the proportion of men who were entitled to participate in the elections was low until the first franchise reform in 1907. In order to be allowed to vote, it was necessary to have real property or to pay tax on an annual taxable income.

Since the early 20th century, these qualifications have been lowered or successively abolished. However, requirements regarding the voters’ and members’ citizenship (Swedish) and age (18 years) still remain in place.

What is a voting qualification?

A voting qualification is a condition an individual must fulfil to be able to vote. Historically, this could involve having a certain income, having completed military service, or not having been convicted for a crime. Today, voters in elections to the Riksdag need to fulfil just two conditions. They need to be a Swedish citizen, and they need to have reached the age of 18.

The Palace Courtyard Crisis and the breakthrough for parliamentary government

In 1914, King Gustav V caused a government crisis, known as the Palace Courtyard Crisis. In a speech to an assembly of farmers who had come to appeal to the King, Gustav V expressed his opposition to the Government’s defence policy. The Government perceived the speech as a deliberate attack and resigned a few days later.

The crisis is one of the most dramatic in our parliamentary history and marks the culmination of a long-standing conflict between the conservatives and the forces in favour of parliamentary government. That is to say, a system where the government is only dependent on the support of a majority of members of parliament, and not of the King.

In the autumn of 1917, however, King Gustav V gave incoming Prime Minister Nils Edén his word that he would comply with the principles of parliamentary government. He thereby promised that the King would no longer be able to intervene in the formation of a government.

The unicameral Riksdag – our present system

From the 1950s, opposition to the two-chamber system gained momentum, as it was considered outdated and complicated. After many years of inquiries, the bicameral system was replaced by a unicameral (single-chamber) Riksdag, with 350 members in 1971.

The system consisting of different committees for legislative and budget matters was also abandoned in favour of committees for different subject areas. Three years later, in 1974, a new Instrument of Government was introduced. The principles of parliamentary government were incorporated into the Constitution and the Speaker assumed a central role when a new government is to be formed.

Decisions by lottery 1973–1976

The system consisting of an even number of members in the Chamber revealed its shortcomings when the parties divided into two blocs. In the 1973 elections to the Riksdag, the socialist and non-socialist blocs received 175 seats each. This meant that several of the Riksdag’s decisions had to be determined by lottery.

The parties generally avoided having to settle matters by lottery and tried to reach compromises instead. However, as a number of decisions had to be determined by lottery, the parliamentary situation during this period is referred to as the “lottery Riksdag”.

Ever since the 1976/77 Riksdag session, the Chamber has therefore had 349 members.

Electoral period extended and Sweden joins the EU

Two important decisions were taken by the Riksdag in 1994; partly to extend the electoral period from three to four years, and partly to introduce more efficient budget procedures. The new budget procedures included making the budget year correspond to the calendar year, and that the Budget Bill should be presented by the Government and considered by the Riksdag during the autumn.

In 1991, Sweden formally applied for membership of the EC (now the EU). The negotiations were concluded three years later, and in November 1994, the Swedish people voted in favour of EU membership in a referendum.

As a consequence of our membership, part of Sweden’s legislative powers have been transferred to the EU, at the same time as Swedish voters can now vote in elections to the European Parliament.  The Government obtains support for its EU policies in the Riksdag Committee on EU Affairs. The Committee on EU Affairs works with all of the EU’s areas of cooperation, such as foreign policy, agricultural policy and police cooperation.

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