Sweden is a parliamentary monarchy with free and fair elections and a strong multiparty system. Civil liberties and political rights are legally guaranteed and respected in practice, and the rule of law prevails. Recent challenges include increases in violent crime and reported hate crimes.
- The initial Swedish response to the COVID-19 pandemic relied on adherence to voluntary social-distancing guidelines, but stricter regulations came into force after the number of cases spiked in November. There were 457,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 9,900 deaths in Sweden during the year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
- A government-appointed commission in December criticized the government and Swedish society for failing to provide adequate care, amid the pandemic, for elderly people in assisted-living homes. Immigrant communities were also disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.
- Violent crime emerged as a concern, with 163 shootings and 20 shooting deaths in the first six months of the year. New measures to combat the violence include increased search and surveillance powers for police, as well as initiatives aimed at expanding care for people who struggle with substance abuse or psychological conditions. Relatively few shootings have been prosecuted, and little information is available about who is involved in the attacks and why.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The prime minister is the head of government and is appointed by the speaker of the freely elected parliament, or Riksdag, and confirmed by the body as a whole. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of the Swedish Social Democrats (SAP) was appointed in January 2019 following parliamentary elections in 2018. King Carl XVI Gustaf, crowned in 1973, is the ceremonial head of state.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The unicameral Riksdag is comprised of 349 members who are elected every four years by proportional representation. A party must receive at least 4 percent of the vote nationwide or 12 percent in an electoral district to win a seat. Swedish elections are broadly free and fair.
In the September 2018 parliamentary elections, neither main bloc won a majority, with the center-left bloc winning 144 seats and the center-right bloc winning 143 seats. The populist, anti-immigrant party, Sweden Democrats (SD), won 62 seats, up from 49 previously. However, the party’s gains fell short of the expectations of many analysts. Parties in both the center-right and center-left blocs refused to form a coalition government with the SD. In January 2019, after over four months without a government, SAP leader Stefan Löfven formed a coalition with the Green Party, the Centre Party, and the Liberals.
A report published in November 2018 by election monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) stated that although the integrity of the elections was not in doubt, the secrecy of the vote was sometimes compromised.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
Elections are regulated by the Swedish Election Authority, which effectively upholds its mandates. The Election Authority is headed by a government-appointed committee.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Political parties may form and operate without restriction.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
Sweden has a strong multiparty system with a robust opposition. Eight political parties secured representation in the Riksdag in 2018.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
People’s political choices are generally free from domination by actors that are not democratically accountable.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
The country’s principal religious, ethnic, and immigrant groups are represented in the parliament, as are many women. There are 161 women (out of 349 members) in Parliament; however, some parties maintain more gender parity than others. Since 1993, the Indigenous Sami community has elected its own legislature, which has significant powers over community education and culture, and serves as an advisory body to the government. There are calls for greater political autonomy of the Sami Parliament, which have been echoed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Sweden’s freely elected representatives develop and implement policy. The strong performance by the far-right Sweden Democrats in the 2018 parliamentary elections, and the refusal of both the center-right bloc and center-left bloc to work with the party, contributed to the failure to form a functioning government for over four months after the general election in 2018. The SAP managed to form a functioning government with the Green Party, Centre Party, and Liberals in January 2019 after a vote in parliament. Three parties abstained from the vote, however.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Corruption is relatively low in Sweden, and anticorruption mechanisms are generally effective. The country’s lively free press also works to expose corrupt officials.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
The country has one of the most robust freedom of information statutes in the world, and state authorities generally respect the right of both citizens and noncitizens to access public information.
|Are there free and independent media?
Sweden’s media are independent. Most newspapers and periodicals are privately owned, and the government subsidizes daily newspapers regardless of their political affiliation. Public broadcasters air weekly radio and television programs in several minority languages. Threats and intimidation of journalists have been reported, particularly against those who report on organized crime, religion, extremist groups, or other sensitive topics.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected. State authorities document religious hate crimes, investigate and prosecute cases, and provide adequate resources for victims. The police force includes a permanent unit trained to handle hate crimes. However, religiously motivated hate crimes often go unreported. The UN Universal Periodic Review of Sweden in 2020 highlighted numerous such instances, mainly aimed at Muslims and Jews, which included physical assaults and attacks on places of worship.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic freedom is generally respected.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Private discussion is open and vibrant.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Freedom of assembly is generally respected in law and in practice. However, violence has occasionally erupted between far-right demonstrators and counterprotesters. Sweden introduced a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Nongovernmental organizations of all kinds function freely.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
The rights to strike and organize in labor unions are guaranteed. Trade union federations, which represent approximately 70 percent of the workforce, are strong and well organized.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
The judiciary is independent.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
The rule of law prevails in civil and criminal matters. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the state must provide legal counsel to people accused of criminal offenses.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
While Sweden is free from large-scale insurgencies, rising street violence has emerged as a growing concern. Deadly shootings, arson attacks, and use of hand grenades have taken place in many Swedish cities in recent years, mainly in poor neighborhoods with large immigrant populations. In the first six months of 2020 there were 163 shootings, in which 20 people were killed. Relatively few cases have been prosecuted, and little information is available about who is involved in the attacks or why. In September, the government announced measures to combat the violence, including granting police increased search and surveillance powers that allow them to read encrypted communications on suspects’ devices. Other measures included initiatives to increase available care for people who struggle with substance abuse or psychological conditions.
The government introduced new antiterrorism measures following a 2017 attack in which a man drove a truck through central Stockholm and into a department store, killing 5 people and wounding 10 others. The law focused on tighter security in public places, greater information sharing between government agencies, and tighter controls on individuals deemed to pose a security threat.
Conditions in prisons and temporary detention facilities are adequate, but concerns have been raised about excessive use of long detention periods.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
The Swedish state works to ensure equal protection and rights for all members of the population. An equality ombudsman oversees efforts to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, disability, and sexual orientation. However, the United Nations has called for the ombudsman’s powers to be strengthened and has noted problems with discrimination by police and correctional personnel.
In 2017, in the wake of growing right-wing sentiment and increasing immigration from abroad, the Swedish government voted to place limits on parental leave benefits for immigrants. In 2016, the parliament passed a law that tightened restrictions on asylum seekers, which included limiting family reunification.
In recent years, multiple reports of members of the Sweden Democrats and other parties making antisemitic and anti-Muslim remarks have emerged: these included denials of the Holocaust, antisemitic conspiracy theories, and extreme anti-Muslim rhetoric, sometimes calling for violence. Jewish and Muslim community leaders in Sweden have claimed that the far-right is an indirect but real threat to their communities. Government statistics on hate crimes from 2018, the most recent available, showed that hate crimes were increasing. Authorities recorded 7,090 offences with an identified hate crime motive that year, of which 4,865 had a xenophobic or racist motive.
The United Nations in Sweden’s 2020 Universal Periodic Review expressed concern over reports of the profiling of members of minority groups by police, as well as the lack of explicit legal provisions prohibiting organizations that promote and incite racial hatred.
A “Corona Commission” appointed in summer 2020 to evaluate the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic reported in December that the Swedish government and society had failed to protect the country’s elderly. The report pointed to structural problems that left the country ill-prepared to deal with the pandemic, contributing to the high rate of deaths of elderly people in care homes. Immigrant communities, including those from Somalia and Syria, were also disproportionately harmed by the pandemic.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Freedom of movement is legally guaranteed and generally respected in practice. However, asylum seekers may be assigned to a place of residence, and at times may be forced to change locations. Sweden continues to maintain checkpoints on its external borders that were instituted during the 2015 refugee crisis. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government suspended nonessential travel to Sweden from countries outside of the European Union (EU). The ban did not include those who held a Swedish residency permit or those who had family who are residents in Sweden.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
The government respects the rights of individuals to own property and establish private businesses. A 2011 Supreme Court ruling granted Sami reindeer herders common-law rights to disputed lands.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Same-sex couples are legally allowed to marry and adopt; lesbian couples have the same rights to artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization as heterosexual couples. The Lutheran Church allows same-sex marriage ceremonies. In 2020, authorities were working to draft a law that would permit people to change their legal gender according to their gender identity.
Despite the country’s reputation in the eyes of many as a model for gender equality, Sweden suffers from persistently high levels of rape and sexual assault. To address the issue, the parliament passed a law in May 2018 that legally recognizes that sex without consent amounts to rape. The law distinguishes Sweden from most other European countries, which continue to legally define rape in terms of force, threats, and coercion. In 2020, rape conviction rates in Sweden had increased by 75 percent since the change in the legal definition.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
People in Sweden generally enjoy equality of opportunity. However, unemployment is higher among immigrants, and particularly immigrant women, than it is among people who were born in Sweden. The United Nations has also noted that the performance gap between foreign-born and native-born children in school remains high.
Sweden is a destination and, to a lesser extent, a transit point for women and children trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, but the Swedish government is proactive in combatting the problem. The government has established antitrafficking working groups and action plans at municipal levels. Nevertheless, the United Nations has pointed out that Sweden lacks robust methods to prevent individuals, especially unaccompanied immigrant children, from falling victim to human trafficking.
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