Leadership and Political Officials. Political parties are stable; five of the current seven have been represented in the parliament since 1921. The largest party, the Social Democrats, won 36 percent of the vote in the 1998 election. Closely allied with the labor movement, the Social Democrats have been in power, singly or in a coalition, for sixty of the last sixty-nine years. The current administration depends on the support of the Left Party—a democratic-socialist, eco-feminist party—and the environmentalist Green Party. The rival of this alliance is the Moderate Party, which received 23 percent of the vote in 1998. Supported by the well-to-do and by industry, the Moderates work for tax cuts, welfare-state retrenchment, and increased military expenditure. Three smaller parties—Christian Democratic, Center, and Liberal—join the Moderates in the bourgeois bloc.
Elections are noted for high voter turnout, effective shielding against corruption by monied interests, and a focus on contested issues rather than personalities. A demanding standard of financial honesty is expected of politicians, and even small-scale tax evasion or misuse of an expense account can lead to removal from office. An elected official may be unfaithful in marriage, but to get caught driving while intoxicated could mean the end of a political career.
A tradition of public access to official documents dates back to the Freedom of the Press Act of 1766. Any individual has a right to see almost any document in national or local government files. There are exceptions to protect the privacy of individuals, but the state’s power to classify documents as national-security secrets is strictly limited.
Social Problems and Control. The legal system is less elaborately codified than continental European systems but less reliant on case-law precedents than is Anglo-American law. New legislation is prepared with the help of official commissions of inquiry that produce exhaustive published reports. Judges, administrators, and lawyers later refer to these reports when interpreting the law. Civil and criminal cases are tried in a three-tiered court system, and a parallel system exists for proceedings concerning public administration. In certain kinds of cases, professional judges are joined on the bench by elected lay assessors (nämndemän) who participate in deliberations with the judges. There are no executions, and prison is reserved principally for those who commit violent crimes. Fines are issued in proportion to the income of the guilty party.
Sweden invented the ombudsman in 1809. An ombudsman is an independent public official who hears complaints from citizens, investigates abuses, and seeks to ensure that authorities follow the law and that citizens’ rights are protected. In addition to four general ombudsmen appointed by the parliament, there are specialized ombudsmen for children’s rights, disabled persons’ rights, consumer issues, journalistic ethics, equal opportunities for women and men, prevention of ethnic discrimination, and prevention of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Scrupulous compliance with laws and social conventions is widespread because of moral pressure from fellow citizens. Considerable conscientiousness is generated by conversations between adults and children concerning moral and social issues. Violence is condemned, gun ownership is carefully regulated, and the media describes with horror the massacres that occur in other countries.
A vexing social problem during the last decade has been racist violence by right-wing extremists. A small number of young men, often from troubled homes, become “skinheads,” neo-Nazis, or motorcycle-gang members. Their attacks on nonwhite immigrants and proimmigrant journalists and public servants have provoked public outrage. Antiracist sentiments are expressed in marches and rallies, journalistic reports, educational campaigns, and government investigations.
Military Activity. The nation has not been at war since 1814. An official policy of “nonalignment in peace aiming at neutrality in war” enabled the country to avoid being drawn into the twentieth century’s world wars. During the Cold War, Sweden had the ability to make an atomic bomb but chose not to do so. Situated between the two antagonistic superpower blocs, the country preserved its independence by means of technologically sophisticated conventional armed forces, civilian-based defense programs, and diplomatic efforts to build solidarity among nonaligned nations as a counterbalance to the superpowers. These policies have continued, with a reduction in military expenditure, since the end of the Cold War.
Current debates concern arms manufacture and conscription. To facilitate nonalignment by avoiding dependence on foreign suppliers, the country has a robust weapons industry. It accounts for less than 1 percent of exports but is strongly opposed by the thousands of residents who engage in international peacemaking efforts. The key questions about conscription are whether to extend it to women or to abolish it in favor of professional, voluntary armed services.