In the previous post, I told you how the Helgeandsholmen island in Stockholm’s Old Town (Gamla Stan) became the residence of the Swedish Parliament (Sveriges Riksdag). I briefly mentioned some of the organisational changes that the Parliament went through in the recent history which consequently required changes to the Parliament House.
Now is the time to look at the Swedish Parliament more carefully. How does it work? How and when has it become what it is today? How did it all start and what implications has it had on the people of Sweden? Let’s find out!
As many stories related to the modern history of Sweden, this one, too, relates to the famous King Gustav Vasa. However, it all started almost a century before his celebrated arrival to the Swedish capital.
At the very beginning of the story, there was a meeting in a town called Arbuga, around 150 kilometres east from Stockholm. The purpose of this meeting, which took place in 1435, was to discuss affairs affecting the whole country of Sweden. Therefore, it can be considered to be the first parliament meeting in the history of Sweden despite the parliament not having been officially established at the time.
Having mentioned Gustav Vasa, it was during his reign, in 1527, when the four Estates – the Nobility, Clergy, Bourgeoisie and Peasantry – met at an official meeting for the first time. Shortly after, in the 1540s, the term Riksdag (Parliament) appears for the first time in the available historical sources.
In the next century, the Swedish Parliament started getting more organised. Some official rules were defined during this period such as who should be invited to participate in the Parliament, when and how often these members should be gathered. However, in the latter half of the 17th century, the position of the Parliament weakened as King Karl XI successfully centralised the power in his hands by confiscating the assets of the nobility through the Reduction (read more about the Reduction in our posts on Fersen Palace, House of Nobility and the History of Swedish Nobility).
Significant changes to the political system and the division of power in Sweden were made during the so-called Age of Liberty (Frihetstiden). This period lasted from 1718 to 1772 and, simply put, it was probably the closest thing to a constitutional monarchy that was possible to achieve at the time. The Riksdag took advantage of the situation that was created by the death of Karl XII who had no descendants. The four Estates that controlled the Riksdag supported Karl XII’s sister Ulrika Eleonora as the successor to the Swedish throne in exchange for significantly increased power.
During the Age of Liberty, the power of the Crown was restricted as all decisions had to be approved by the Riksdag. At the time, the Riksdag had 24 and later only 16 members. New members were still chosen by the head of the state, but the three candidates that were eligible were selected by the Riksdag. Moreover, the reigning monarch held two votes and the potential decisive vote when applicable.
It was also during this time period that political parties started to be formed. The first two parties known in Sweden were the so-called Hats (Hattarna) and Caps (Mössorna). Apart from that, many other existing traditions with regards to the functioning of the Swedish Parliament come from the 18th-century Age of Liberty.
However, while this may sound as if true democracy started to take shape in Sweden, the situation also brought common problems many countries suffer to this day. Between the main reasons that brought this establishment to its end were battles between the Estates and corruption. Economic problems that the country suffered at the end of the period were also among the factors that helped Gustav III take control over the country and centralise the power in the hands of the king once again.
A new constitution entered into force in 1809 which formally defined the separation of power between the king and the Parliament. This constitution presented an important step toward modern-day establishment as it stressed the division between legislative, judicial and executive powers. It was also at this time that courts and other public institutions in the country became independent.
Further development came in 1865 when the Parliament of the four Estates was abolished and replaced by a bicameral system. In this new system, the First Chamber represented the ‘education and wealth’ and its members were elected indirectly by the county councils and municipal assemblies in large towns and cities. Only men of certain age and with a defined amount of assets were eligible to be members of the chamber.
The members of the Second Chamber, on the other hand, were elected by the public. However, only men and a very specific group of women had voting privileges. Men, once again, had to own property of certain value or pay high enough annual income taxes. As far as the requirements for women who were given a vote in the elections go, they had to be unmarried and have an income above a certain boundary or own assets of a given value.
If we simplify the picture, we can say that only influential and wealthy people were given the right to choose who was going to be even more powerful and wealthy.
However, the idea of complete equality for all Swedish citizens was discussed already in the 1860s, too. It took several smaller steps and rejected government bills before the universal and equal suffrage was approved by the Riksdag in 1919. At this point, both men and women had the right to cast their votes in parliamentary elections and were eligible to become members of the Parliament.
In the first election after the rule was implemented, in 1921, five women were elected to the Riksdag. However, the universal suffrage was still not so universal to be honest. There were several exceptions to the rule that were abolished during the next few decades. Among the people who did not initially possess the right to vote were men who have not completed military service, individuals who have gone bankrupt or who were dependant on economic support from the state, to name a few.
The bicameral system introduced in the second half of the 19th century was replaced by a single chamber consisting of 350 members in 1971. At the same time, a new system for the functioning of committees was established, which defined 16 dedicated committees that are meant to act as miniature versions of the Riksdag. Each of the committees is focused on issues in a specific area.
Some flaws of the new system became apparent soon after and a few changes have been made since to improve the efficiency of the Parliament. The total number of members was lowered to 349 simply to avoid inconclusive polls. Later, the electoral period was extended to four years from the original three.
To give you an idea about how seriously citizens of Sweden take their responsibilities when it comes to selecting their representatives, the average voter turnout rate in the last 10 parliamentary elections is 85,5% which is far higher than in other advanced countries. General elections in Sweden are held every fourth year, always on the third Sunday in September.
Lastly, I would like to point out that this post by no means contains all information about the past or the present of the Swedish Parliament. Its goal is to present you the most interesting information and give you an overview of important historic events as well as the functioning of the Parliament in the present day. If you would like to discover more, I recommend you to refer to the sources that I used to gather information for this post, which are available at its end.
In the next post on Trevl, I will show you a few more places related to the Swedish Parliament located in Stockholm’s Old Town which are worth seeing. In the meantime, you can find a plenty of great places and their interesting stories in our android app Trevl. We would also love to see you on our Instagram account where we share photos of nice places from Stockholm and other major cities.
Schück, Herman, et al., 1985. Riksdagen genom tiderna.
Information Department of the Riksdag, 2003. Sveriges Riksdag.