100 years of democracy

This year, 2021, it is 100 years since universal suffrage and equal rights to vote were introduced, and women voted for the first time. This is a jubilee worth celebrating – and one that should give pause for thought. At LiU, we are contributing to this by illuminating some of the work at the university associated with democracy.

100 years of democracy - a jubilee worth celebrating

A historical photograph, taken on a historical day.

Historical picture women on their way to the polling station in 1921.At last! Eva Andén is second from the left. Photo: Alvin Kvinnsam

It’s election day in September 1921 and Eva Andén, Sweden’s first female lawyer, and other employees from the office are on their way to vote in the first general election in which women have the vote. Happy, expectant faces. A decisive day. Two employees who are too young to vote have been left behind to look after the office.

One hundred years later we are celebrating the jubilee of universal suffrage and Swedish democracy. As the years have passed, the right to vote has been extended to further groups, and decisive freedoms and rights have been granted or strengthened. People power cannot be taken for granted, and it is not static: it changes all the time.

We present here some of the research and education with links to democracy carried out at LiU, and some of the people working in the field. There are also ideas for further reading, and activities in honour of the jubilee. This is our contribution to the celebration of Swedish democracy. Long live democracy!


News on democracy

"We must not take democracy for granted"

Speaker of the Swedish parliament discusses democray

Speaker of the Swedish parliament Andreas Norlén, alumnus from Linköping University, shares his views on democracy and describes how they guide him in his work.


What do you know about democracy?

1. Which was the first country in the world to introduce voting rights for women?

New Zealand, in 1893.

2. Which year were women in Sweden allowed to vote for the first time?


3. How many women were elected to the Swedish parliament in 1921? Can you name any of them?

Five women were elected to the parliament. Elisabeth Tamm, Nelly Thüring, Agda Östlund and Bertha Wellin were elected to the lower house, and Kerstin Hesselgren was the first woman in the upper house.

4. When did Sweden introduce the bicameral legislature?

In 1866. The introduction of the bicameral legislature meant that parliament’s political power, and voting rights, were no longer linked to the four estates (nobility, clergy, merchants and farmers).

5. How many members of parliament are there in Sweden?


6. In Sweden, is legislation approved by the government or the parliament?

The parliament

7. The Instrument of Government, the Act of Succession and the Freedom of the Press Act are three of Sweden’s four fundamental laws. What is the fourth?

The Fundamental Law of Freedom of Expression

8. After an election, a prime minister is chosen. Who proposes the prime minister for the parliament to decide on?

The Speaker

9. Sweden has held six national referendums. Name three.

Prohibition of alcoholic beverages (1922)
Switch from left-hand to right-hand traffic (1955)
National supplementary pension (ATP) (1957)
Nuclear energy (1980)
Membership of the EU (1994)
Introduction of the Euro in Sweden (2003)

10. What was the voter turnout in the 2018 Swedish general election? 69% 76% or 87% ?

87 %

What does democracy mean to you?

“Freedom and rights under shared responsibility”

Thomas Holmqvist, Group manager at Cleaning Services Office, Properties Division

Photo credit Magnus Johansson

Born: Linköping Lives: Linköping
For me, democracy means freedom and rights under our shared responsibility. We have the right to vote, we have freedom to demonstrate and it is our shared responsibility to maintain this.

However I also think there are shortcomings. Like in our electoral system, where no party can reach a majority. Forming a government becomes tricky, which means that some small parties get absurd levels of influence, even though they have little support from the electorate. I think that democracy is sidestepped when this occurs.

In the future I don’t think our democracy will be as stable as it has been. Society today is very polarised, with some extreme groups gaining a voice. I think these extreme views can affect our democracy in the future.




"For people from colonised countries democracy can mean many things"

Caroline Betemps, doctoral student

Caroline Betemps Photo credit Annika FüserBorn: Bagé, Brasil Lives: Linköping
One take is that ‘modern democracy’ has its roots in the colonies. Breny Mendoza says that “there would never have been a thought of individual, legal and civil rights, if the figure of the enslaved and the indigenous in servitude had not existed”. Democracy is also a card used by the hegemonic countries to grant humanity to the peripherals if they meet certain criteria at the level of human rights. But at the same time, those same countries promote the impoverishment that in turn generates the vulnerability of those rights – the very rights that are required to be considered democratic.

If you look around, as a country, as an institution, Europe is right now a fortress. Its borders are considered “the world's deadliest borders” by the International Organization for Migration. If still existing, anecdotal. New forms of governance must and will appear. The question is if they will work for humans and non-humans co-existing in this world.

“The ability to influence my education”           

Natalia Tomczyk, former student and former student representative at StuFF student union for the humanities

Photo credit Magnus Johansson

Born: Przysucha in Poland Lives: Linköping
For me, democracy means that everyone has the same value and that everyone can have their voice heard, regardless of socioeconomic status, educational background, gender, religion or ethnicity. That we participate in society on equal terms. As a student, democracy is of course that I have the ability to influence my education.

But in our society, everyone doesn’t have the same opportunity to be heard. Some people in Sweden live in exclusion – both socially and digitally. Exclusion affects your ability to be heard, to change your situation, and to find out about your rights. In an increasingly digitalised – and perhaps more complicated – world, these citizens have no natural place.

In 100 years I think we will view children and their right to influence completely differently than today. Also I think that digitalisation can provide exciting opportunities that increase citizens’ participation.

“Democracy for me would mean degrowth and alternatives to development"

Madina Tlostanova, professor

Photo credit Anna NilsenBorn: Moscow in the former Soviet Union Lives: Linköping
Democracy is a principle of just and equal relationality among humans, other living beings and the planet. I favour democratic models where biological and cultural diversity are at the centre and where food, water and environmental sovereignty are available to all. Democracy for me would mean degrowth and alternatives to development.

Those in power do not have a far-reaching plan for the future, as they exist in the format of the short-term electoral cycles that make most democratic governments more interested in holding onto their power than saving the world.

In the future we might find ourselves in a less democratic world, yet I believe in direct participatory bottom-up democratic communities, grounded in regional and local alliances.

A photographer’s eye on democracy

A place to be free

Anna Nilsen, photographer at Linköping University, has interpreted democracy through images.

“For me, democracy is a synonym to freedom, human rights and the equal value of people. But I started to think about what democracy isn’t, and that ended up being what I investigated through my photographs”, says Anna Nilsen.


People power - a long time coming

1890 - Organising the fight

Histrorical picture demonstration for the right to vote.A demonstration for universal and equal suffrage. The demands include an eight-hour working day. Photo: Sundsvalls museum

The first motion for universal suffrage had been written six years earlier, in 1884, but failed to pass. Sveriges Allmänna Rösträttsförbund is formed in 1890 – open for all to join, but working mainly to promote men’s right to vote. The association is mainly driven by Liberal politicians, but the demands it makes are shared by the growing labour movement. The Swedish Social Democratic Party had been formed the previous year, and its chairman Hjalmar Branting was subsequently elected to parliament in a Liberal constituency.

1902 - Women's associations

Historical picture demonstration for womens right to vote with Ellen Key.Ellen Key speaking at a meeting arranged by FKPR at Visingsö. Photo: Grenna Museum.

A proposal in parliament that married men should be given two votes – one for himself and one for his wife – prompts women in the Fredrika Bremer Association to discuss organising a fight for women’s right to vote. The “Föreningen för kvinnans politiska rösträtt”, FKPR, is formed in 1902 and the following year reconfigured as the “Landsföreningen för kvinnans politiska rösträtt”, FKPR (in English: “National Association for Women’s Suffrage”). The number of local branches grows rapidly: from 73 in 1906 to 157 in 1909 and 237 in 1917. The membership is then 17,000.

1913 - 350,000 signatures

Historical picture Elin Wägner with lists of signatures for women's right to vote.Author and suffragette Elin Wägner beside the petition. Photo: Kvinnsam/University of Gothenburg 

In September 1911, the first election with a considerably enlarged electoral roll – for men – is held, although many are still ineligible to vote due to the age requirement, and the conditions of completed military service and payment of tax. At the same time, the fight for female suffrage continues. A national petition is arranged in 1913-1914 that collects 350,000 signatures – people who support the demand for votes for women. The signatures are presented in 35 bound volumes.

The right for men to vote brings with it a radicalisation of the campaign for female suffrage – a principal demand is namely the right to vote on the same conditions as men. Previously, this has meant that working class women whose husbands do not have the right to vote also do not in practice have the right.

1917 - A desicive year

Historical pciture demonstration in Stockholm 1917.Historical pciture demonstration in Stockholm 1917. Risk of av revolution? Hjalmar Branting, leader of the Social Democratic Party, hurries across Gustav Adolfs Scuar at a demonstration in June 1917. Photo credit Stockholmskällan

The king held a speech in the castle grounds three years previously and forced the government to resign, but in 1917 the Liberals and Social Democratic Party form a coalition government. This is a breakthrough for parliamentarism, and establishes the principle that the majority in the parliament determines which government is to run the country. At the same time, Sweden experiences nationwide unrest, and hunger riots break out. Around 30 demonstrators are injured in Stockholm, and several are overrun by mounted police at what came to be known as the “Bloodbath at Gustav Adolfs Square”.

1918-1921 - Stepwise democracy

Historical picture women demonstrate for the right to vote.A demonstration or women´s right to vote in Gothenburg. On of many actions hat finally gave results.  Photo credit Nordiska museet

Increasing demands for reform – and a fear of revolution such as that seen in Russia – finally force the political majority to come round. After negotiations far into the night, an extraordinarily convened parliament passes in December 1918 the first resolution giving women the right to vote. Since this requires a change to the constitution, the formal decisions are subsequently passed at two ordinary parliaments in 1919 and 1921, separated by a general election. The first election with universal and equal suffrage is held in September 1921.

And afterwards?

The members of Sametinget.The Sami parliament provides the right to self-determination for the Sami indigenous people.  Photo credit Marie Birkl

Sweden became a democracy in 1921, and work to extend democratic rights continued. Several reforms were carried out throughout the 20th century, strengthening and extending people power in Sweden. Several obstacles to voting related to income and military service were gradually removed. The voting age has been reduced in stages; foreign citizens are allowed to vote in municipal and regional elections; and the rights of ethnic minorities have been reinforced.

The parliament building in Stockholm in 1905.The parliament building in Stockholm in 1905. It will be another 16 years before democracy becomes reality. Photo: Swedish Parliament

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