On 13 November 1994, the Swedish people voted in a referendum to join the European Union. In the highest turnout of all Swedish referendums, 82 per cent of the eligible population voted resulting in 2.79 million Swedes voting for, 2.52 million voting against and 48,000 who could not make up their minds and voted with the third option - blank. These blank votes had no effect on the result, they would not be allocated to either side nor would they be divided evenly between the two sides - the latter would cause no real change to the result anyway, it would simply allow the majority vote to exceed the 50.1 per cent mark. This would be unnecessary, as the referendum system only requires for the majority to win, even if that majority is less than 50 per cent. In this case the vote equates to 42.8 per cent voted for, 38.45 per cent voted no and 0.74 per cent voted blank. As a contrast, in Australia it is necessary for the vote to receive a clear majority of 50.1 per cent. The fact that only 0.74 per cent of the population voted blank ensured that it would be extremely unlikely for either the Yes or No vote not to reach the 50.1 per cent and have a clear majority.
Even so, the vote was close. A swing of 2.2 per cent was required to have change the outcome and this amounted to less than 123,000 of the people who had voted.
So why was the voter turnout so high? It is known that the issue of joining the European Union was a contentious one. Sweden had already rejected the idea in the early 1970's as 'not a realistic possibility',<1> yet it had been raised again, and was finally being put to a referendum. Do the Swedish people take as much interest in all political decisions as they did with this? Or does the 48,000 blank voters show that the people will just 'turn up' to vote for the sake of voting - much as the Russian people (and many British) will join a queue for the sake of lining up not knowing what is at the other end.
The Swedish people and government received their first big shake up during the tariff dispute of the 1880's. Europe was in the grip of a free trade movement, particularly among the more industrialised nations. Sweden was, at the time, a poor agricultural country, and so had placed restrictions to protect themselves from richer free trade nations. These restrictions were eventually lifted because of both pressure from the other countries and because of a boom in the 1850's which caused a negative outcome for the farming sector.
By the 1870's the boom was over and prices fell. Imports from the larger agricultural countries of the United States of America and Russia were cheaper than the home grown product, and consequently the farmers were going broke and leaving the land.
And so began the dispute that was to change the attitudes of the Swedish voter and create the party political system that continues today.
The nation was divided between the pro-tariff, or protectionist, and the anti-tariff, or free trade, groups. The Swedish people, until then an apathetic voter with little or no interest in politics, found themselves on one side or the other. The government, while supporting the free trade ideal, had adopted a policy of non-intervention, suggesting that the country would be better off with free trade rather than without it. They felt that the economy would be better left in the hands of the business sector itself, and away from government control.
The free trade group cited the way industries had flourished under free trade and competition with other countries and that this had come about without protection. They also suggested that the first to suffer from protectionism would be the very people they were trying to protect - the poorer people.
But even though some industries were successful under free trade, agriculture was in trouble, and not only in Sweden, but much of Europe.
The pro-tariff group likened the free traders attitude to Darwin's 'survival of the fittest', suggesting their interest lay in success at any cost including the demise of the poorer farmers. Under this premise, the pro-tariff group called for the government to intervene. It was their belief that the government should assume responsibility for the economy and the protection of industries struggling because of free trade.
What was ironic was that by this time the European countries that forced Sweden to remove their tariff structure were themselves installing tariffs to protect their agricultural industry.
Everywhere in Sweden the tariff issue was being discussed, everywhere that was except in parliament. That was because the MPs successfully used The Parliament Act which stated:
that a member could not be bound by any instructions other than the Constitution. It thus rejected the so-called imperative mandate, which meant that the voters gave their MPs instructions on how to act on different issues.<2>The MPs were able to avoid the tariff issue, keeping it off the agenda for the 1884 election. Immediately following the election the issue was put to the Parliament. In 1885 tariffs were rejected outright. In 1886 the vote was divided between the two Chambers and under a joint vote was rejected again. In 1887 the vote was again divided but it seemed that this time there were the numbers to pass the tariffs under a joint vote. Before this could happen the Second Chamber was dissolved by King Oscar II forcing another election.<3>
What had been a politically apathetic nation in 1866 when only 25 per cent of those eligible voted and in 1872 dropped to 19.1 per cent, had leapt to 48.1 per cent in 1887. Unfortunately for the pro-tariff group their support had fallen and the free traders retained power.
The next regular election was held in the autumn of 1887 and although the turnout fell to 35.9 per cent, there was a swing to the protectionists. It was then that an amazing turn of luck favouring the protectionists occurred. A free trader from Stockholm was found to owe municipal taxes. This meant that not only was he disqualified, but so were the other 21 free traders on his ticket. Under the Parliamentary Act these men were replaced by protectionists and giving them the majority needed to govern.
With this, the free trader government resigned and although King Oscar II wanted to keep the free traders in power, suggesting change would upset the stability of the country, he eventually conceded this wish and allowed the new government to be formed. Subsequently, tariffs were reintroduced.
This was the turning point in Swedish politics. At this time, only men twenty one years old, with a specific wealth based on the value of property owned or leased were able to vote. Suffrage was the next item of change and by 1909 universal suffrage for men was gained and 1921 saw women allowed to vote.
But the tariff issue was the catalyst. The Swedish people realised that they had the ability to change things and that they were not at the mercy of the politician who believed that once he was in power, his ideas and opinions were what the people wanted. The politicians themselves realised that they had to represent the people more responsibly, but this was, for them, a 'let off'. Previously, any contentious issue put before the government was passed or rejected simply on the basis of what the wealthy, middle class politician decided was right. The electorate had been disinterested in these issues and had taken the decisions with resignation and a belief that they could not change them. With the tariff dispute, the people changed from the apathetic lot that they were, to a society that grew more politically aware. The politicians were then able to 'pass the buck' on certain issues and put to the people a referendum and let them decide. Instead of speaking for the people, they allowed the people to speak for themselves.
Since the tariff debate, Sweden has had referendums on five issues. The first two were similar in the participation rate. In 1922 a referendum on prohibition was held. There was a 55.1 per cent voter turnout, with 49.1 per cent for and 50.9 per cent against. A close result, reflecting the differences in society seen in many countries. In 1955 it was on whether to change from left hand traffic to right-hand traffic. 53.2 per cent of the voters took part - 15.5 per cent for, 82.9 per cent against and 1.6 per cent blank. This result shows the peoples resistance to unnecessary change. The number of voters participating would more reflect the peoples interest in the issue. Obviously the non-drivers and others unaffected by this would see no need to vote. Unfortunately, within a few years, Sweden was changed to right hand traffic despite the peoples wishes. This is not a return to the days of apathy, it simply shows that the people are aware of events surrounding them but feel that they should only vote in issues affecting them.
The next two referendums were different. Instead of a yes/no vote, three lines of voting plus the blank option were given and while this allowed a greater choice it also had the effect of confusing the electorate. But even with this possible confusion, the participation rate rose from the mid fifty per cent of the 1922 and 1955 referendums to 72.4 per cent in the first of these referendums (the supplementary pension scheme in 1957) and 75.6 per cent in the second (the Nuclear Power issue in 1980).
Both these issues were important to all Swedes - a pension would be needed by all people eventually and the division was formed along the lines of whether the government should provide a pension through taxation, the people should save for it themselves (with some tax relief) or a combination of both. The nuclear power issue arose after Sweden had started using nuclear power and at the time people were becoming aware of the pitfalls of this source. The choices here were 1) phase it out, 2) maintain the current level and 3) to continue to expand. The main problem facing the Swedish people was that they had just experienced the rapid rise in cost for oil, they did not want to dam any more rivers to supplement the hydro-electric output and they had uranium reserves to last 'several hundred years'.<4>
Before the tariff debates of the 1880's the Swedish people were in a feudal type society with the upper class making all the decisions. Following these debates the people became aware of the importance of their role in government.
Sweden has now a participatory democracy. They are expected to participate in the decision making processes where possible. They are taught about politics in school, and read about political and current affairs as much as possible.
Swedes consider their role in the decision making process is more important than the decision itself, so when the opportunity arises they involve themselves as much as they can. Issues are discussed everywhere - at work, home, on the street.
When the referendum for joining the European Union came up the people again became involved. There were only two choices - yes or no - and both sides were equally vocal. People had their own opinions, some changed while others changed back. Right up to the vote the issue was being discussed and challenged. It was impossible to predict the outcome due to the closeness of both sides. Two days before the vote public opinion polls showed 42 per cent against, 40 per cent for and 20 per cent undecided.
Sweden does not have compulsory voting. People have the choice as to whether to vote or not. To have 53.2 per cent of the eligible population turnout to vote on changing from left hand to right hand traffic, through to having 82 per cent vote on the EU without being forced to shows that the Swedish people take their role in government very seriously.
During the supplementary pension scheme debate, the Social Democrats and the nonsocialists 'agreed that referendums should normally not play any prominent role in Sweden's political life',<5> suggesting that not every issue should go to a referendum. The Conservatives maintained that 'referendums would enable the people to assume a larger role and responsibility for social reforms, which tended to intervene increasingly in their lives'.<6> The philosophy was that on issues that had direct consequences on the peoples lives they should have a say. With this the people would involve themselves in these issues accepting the responsibility. And they do.