The fight for the right to vote

In the late 19th century, the power of the King was weakened and the Riksdag's influence grew in strength. But the most pressing issue was yet to be resolved. The fight for equal suffrage and eligibility for election for all adult Swedes.

The fight for suffrage was pursued by many groups of different backgrounds and interests. The debate concerned more than just being “for” or “against” the right to vote. There were any number of variations, reservations and conditions in the proposals that were presented. 

From the late 1880s and for many years to follow, the question of extended suffrage was a standing issue on the agenda of the Riksdag. Several proposals were presented – but they were almost all rejected. In 1901, military service was introduced for men between the ages of 18 and 47. “One man – one vote – one gun” consequently became a new slogan in the campaign for the right to vote. 

But little attention was paid in the Riksdag to the question of women’s suffrage. The National Association for Women’s Suffrage (LKPR) therefore organised a collection of signatures in favour of women’s voting rights. A total of 351,454 signatures were collected in 1913. But despite the fact that the women’s movement engaged in public debate and was active throughout the country, it was frequently said that women were not sufficiently interested or knowledgeable to participate in politics.

Men are given the right to vote (1907–1909)

Despite the fact that the conservatives had curbed all proposals for extended voting rights for many years, it was Arvid Lindman’s right-wing Government that finally succeeded in introducing universal suffrage for men.

The proposal primarily gave extended voting rights for men over the age of 24 in elections to the Second Chamber of the Riksdag, and meant that the qualifications relating to income and wealth were abolished. In addition, proportional representation was introduced in both Chambers.

Several issues that were soon to become the focus of political debate were not dealt with at all in the franchise reforms of 1907–1909. Women’s suffrage and a parliamentary system of government were not touched upon. Many people hoped that Lindman’s limited reforms would restrain the left-wing’s more far-reaching democratic demands. This proved to be a misjudgement.

Universal and equal suffrage – the agreement of 1918

The First World War (1914–1918) brought a series of crises and an air of revolution across Europe. During the war, both men and women had made significant contributions to the country’s defence, agricultural sector, industry and in the home. Many people felt that in return for these considerable contributions to society, they should be given the right to vote. Extended food shortages also fuelled the general feeling of discontent.

In 1917, a Government consisting of liberals and social democrats took office, with universal and equal suffrage on its agenda. King Gustav V promised not to intervene in the Government’s policies, which meant that a parliamentary system of government was able to set root in Sweden. In the autumn of 1918, the Government presented a proposal for universal and equal suffrage which was finally accepted by the right-wing parties. This meant that the proposal could be approved in both Chambers of the Riksdag. Earlier in the autumn, King Gustav V and certain prominent business leaders had expressed their support for a franchise reform, which also influenced the attitude of the right-wing parties. However, the Social Democratic Left Party did not support the proposals, as it considered that they contained too many restrictions on voting rights.

Shortly before 1 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday 18 December 1918, the Speaker’s gavel finally struck the table. Both Chambers had reached a decision of principle. Sweden was to introduce universal and equal suffrage. This was to be implemented in two stages:

  1. In the municipal and county council elections in the spring of 1919, all Swedish citizens who had come of age – women and men – would have one vote each, regardless of gender, social background or wealth. The decision also affected the Riksdag, as the members of the First Chamber were elected by the county councils.
  2. The Riksdag promised that universal and equal suffrage would be introduced in the elections to the Second Chamber of the Riksdag. However, this required an amendment to fundamental law and a further two decisions in the Riksdag in 1919 and 1921.

Why did Sweden become a democracy?

The advent of democracy can be attributed to several interrelated factors. The Enlightenment, industrialisation, urbanisation, the population surge, increased literacy, the growing popular movements, new communication systems, freer mass media – all of these developments reshaped society and spurred on demands for new political ground rules.

When the right psychological moment arose in the autumn of 2018, after the fall of the German Empire, the time was also ripe to convince a majority of members of the Riksdag. Failure to introduce democracy by means of controlled reforms would have meant a tangible risk that society would be overturned through violence.

The first democratic election

When the Second Chamber of the Riksdag convened in January 1922, it was the first time the members had been elected in democratic elections, in today’s sense of the word. A large majority of the citizens were now both voters and eligible to stand for election. Several representatives of the working and middle classes took their seats in both of the Chambers. Furthermore, the first women were elected, after hundreds of years of men only.

Illustration of the five first women in the riksdag.
Illustration: The Riksdag Administration

However, men continued to dominate politics long after the advent of democracy. Women struggled to gain seats, and were often met with resistance. The men were placed higher on the parties’ lists of candidates, they took the party leadership positions for themselves, decided in the party groups and chaired the parliamentary committees. Nevertheless, the entry of women to the political arena made itself felt in other ways. The parties now tried to attract women voters with proposals they believed would be popular with them.

Not until the 1960s did women start to receive more seats in the parties and the Riksdag. The debate on gender roles and gender equality appeared on the agenda, as a result of which women were nominated to a greater extent and given more important political positions.

Groups without voting rights

Thousands of people with functional disabilities, mental illness and suffering from dementia continued to be termed “legally incompetent” and without voting rights far into the 20th century. Not until 1989 did the Riksdag decide that adults could no longer be declared legally incompetent. Even if someone needs help to manage their economy and other everyday tasks, this no longer affects the right to vote or other civil rights. Today, only children under the age of 18 are considered minors in the legal sense of the word. 

Until 1945, adults in poor relief schemes were prevented from voting, which affected many people who were ill or with functional disabilities. They were unable to receive any other help beyond the little they were offered through the poor relief schemes. 

For a long time, it was taken for granted that only Swedish citizens could vote. In 1976, the rules for municipal elections were changed. Since then, people without Swedish citizenship have also been able to vote (if they have lived in the municipality for at least three years). However, Swedish citizenship remains a requirement for elections to the Riksdag.

Every other one for the ladies – an equal gender balance

The proportion of women in the Riksdag increased steadily, but in the 1991 parliamentary elections it fell by almost five percentage points, to 33 per cent. This led to an intensive debate on representation in the Riksdag.

Ahead of the following elections to the Riksdag in 1994, several parties therefore introduced lists where every other candidate was a woman. This method of enlisting candidates on the ballot papers has been referred to as “every other one for the ladies”.

In the 1994 elections, the proportion of women in the Riksdag rose by over seven percentage points to just over 40 per cent. This means that the Riksdag then, for the first time, achieved its goal of an equal gender balance. Since then, the share of men and women in the Riksdag has been between 40 and 60 per cent.

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