When Swedes agree to pause democracy

Clenched fist raised above a large crowd.

Our right to organize and demonstrate, regardless of our opinions, are democratic rights that are sometimes questioned. Photo: Getty Images

Swedish people are very positive about their democracy and how it works. Despite that, a majority thinks that our democratic freedoms and rights could need to be temporarily restricted in order to deal with a serious social problem. This has been shown in a survey conducted collaboratively between Uppsala University and the SOM institute in Gothenburg.

“We were surprised ourselves that there was such extensive support for the concept of pausing democracy. But we have noticed in recent years that certain issues are discussed and raised against democracy, such as gender equality, the environment, crime and so forth. And this has changed quite quickly, we think,” explains Sten Widmalm, Professor of Political Science who conducted the survey together with colleague Thomas Persson.

Portrait Sten Widmalm.

Sten Widmalm, Professor of Political Science. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

3,750 randomly selected people were asked the question: “It should be possible to temporarily limit democracy to handle...?” The options to choose from were a pandemic, a climate and environmental crisis, serious crime, a financial crisis, integration problems and gender discrimination. It turned out that more than half thought it was acceptable to place restrictions on democratic rights for all of those social problems, with the exception of gender discrimination where the percentage was 40 percent.

Highest level of acceptance during a pandemic

The highest level of acceptance for pausing democracy was noted during a pandemic, where 71 percent considered it a situation that could require such measures. Most of the options in the survey did not describe situations that could obviously be considered urgent and life-threatening, such as pandemics or war.

“This means that we have become a little lax in our thinking. We take democracy somewhat for granted. We think we can just get it back if we pause it,” adds Widmalm.

However, we should be wary of this way of thinking, he says, because there are several examples of countries where temporary restrictions on democracy have not turned out to be as temporary as first promised. Some regimes use real or perceived threats to the country as an excuse to push politics in a more authoritarian direction. This does not mean that societal challenges can be solved more easily, Widmalm points out, using gender equality as an example.

“I’m completely convinced that the equality we have in Sweden is very much dependent on the fact that we have had democracy. So if there’s one thing you should not shut down or pause to promote equality efforts, it is democracy,” he notes.

Ranking various problems

According to Widmalm, the survey provides a picture of how Swedes rank various problems in society.

“We can then also draw general conclusions about this, such as that there seem to be too many people who agree to pausing democracy without having pressing reasons. After all, many of the areas raised here cannot easily be blamed on democracy, or even at all, for example the climate and environmental crisis. It is so easy to say that you are dissatisfied with democracy and that it has created the environmental crises. That’s a completely legitimate position, but to say that it legitimises expert rule – there is no evidence that it would be any better,” he adds.

He can see several reasons behind the responses to the survey, and they are not only due to us taking democracy for granted. He also believes that many people pack too much into the concept of democracy, feeling it should include everything that we consider good. Disdain for politicians and mistrust of our elected officials may be another reason. To some extent, he thinks the politicians have themselves to blame when they don't listen to the people and take liberties such as making laws without listening to Council on Legislation or managing supplementary budgets outside the rules.

Reason to be vigilant

So how badly is Swedish democracy actually faring? Widmalm does not see any urgent threats, but thinks there is reason to be vigilant.

“Our democracy still has relatively strong roots. But should the elite begin to tighten their grip on rights and freedoms, it can quickly resonate with people who start using these issues against each other in the way the elite does. If that starts, things can unfortunately move quickly,” he says.

Sten Widmalm and Thomas Persson will now study this issue in more depth. Among other things, they want to look more closely at how, when and under which conditions Swedes think that democracy may need to be paused. Next spring they hope to be able to present new results.

Åsa Malmberg

Facts: “The open society” research project

The survey forms part of “The open society” research project, which is funded by the Agency for Psychological Defense, the Swedish Research Council and the Expert Group for Studies in Public Finance and is led by researchers at Uppsala University.

The survey was carried out in collaboration with the SOM Institute in autumn 2022 and involved a nationally representative random sample of 3,750 people. The response rate for the entire SOM survey was 48 percent.

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