Referenda

We have had five referenda in Sweden. The people were asked to vote on prohibition in 1922, on switching to right-hand traffic in 1955, on occupational pensions in 1957, on nuclear power in 1980, and on membership in the EU in 1994.

Prohibition

The issue in the 1922 referendum was whether to institute prohibition of alcohol. It may have been confusing to be asked to vote yes or no to prohibition, instead of to alcohol itself. The people voted against prohibition. The campaign for our first referendum was rancorous. The political parties kept out of it, other than the Leftist Socialists, who were in favor of prohibition. Independent organizations managed the campaign, which put opponents of prohibition at a disadvantage, since they were not equally well-organized.

Nevertheless, the outcome was a victory for the opposing side: 51 percent voted against prohibition and 49 percent voted for it. Voter turnout was 55.1 percent and the higher turnout among opponents than among advocates was the deciding factor. There was a 15 percent difference in turnout between women, who were generally in favor of prohibition, and men, who were mainly opposed.

Poster by Karl Örbo, 1922  © Karl Örbo, 1922

Poster by Albert Engström, 1922  ©Albert Engström, 1922

Right-hand Traffic

The 1955 referendum was about whether Sweden should switch to driving on the right side of the road. An overwhelming 82.9 percent majority wanted to keep driving on the left and only 15.5 percent were in favor of right-hand traffic. Voter turnout was low, at 53.2 percent, much to the disappointment of politicians. The outcome confirmed the theory that referenda have a tendency to favor the status quo. There was no doubt about popular opinion and plans to institute right-hand traffic were put on ice.

Eight years later, in 1967, the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) nevertheless voted in favor of switching to right-hand traffic. The decision was based on the drastic increase in the number of cars on Swedish roads. Critics argued that only a new referendum could annul a previous decision by referendum, but there was no support for that notion in the Swedish Constitution.

Poster by Fritiof Pedersén, 1955   © Fritiof Pedersén, 1955

Poster by unknown, 1955  © Unknown, 1955

Occupational Pensions

The fate of an occupational pension system was at stake in the 1957 referendum. The outcome was a yes, with the voters asked to choose among three alternatives.

Alternative One: The proposal called for mandatory supplementary retirement benefits financed by employer contributions. The Social Democrats, the Communists, and the Swedish Trade Union Confederation supported the proposal.

Alternative Two: Citizens would continue to buy voluntary pension plans from private insurance companies. The Farmers’ League (which eventually became the Center Party) supported the proposal.

Alternative Three: The proposal was similar to Alternative Two, but the difference was that Alternative Three encouraged allowing labor and management to negotiate collective agreements on occupational pensions. The Rightist Party (today’s Moderate Party), the Swedish Liberal Party, the Swedish Employers’ Federation, the Swedish Crafts and Small Industry Organization, and the Swedish Union of Clerical and Technical Employees in Industry supported Alternative Three.

This was the first time the political parties participated in a referendum campaign, which increased public interest. An intensive campaign spread information about the alternatives. The outcome of the referendum was an anticlimax. Most voters voted according to their party line or union recommendations. Alternative Three got 45.8 percent of the votes, Alternative Two got 15 percent, and Alternative Three got 35.3 percent. Voter turnout was 72.4 percent.

Ambiguous Result

The lack of a definitive result led all contenders to declare themselves the winners. Supporters of Alternative Three argued that they had won since they had garnered the most votes. The Alternative Two proponents believed they were the victors since more people voted for their proposal than had voted for the Farmers’ League in the preceding election. Advocates of Alternative Three emphasized that a majority of the people had voted for the alternatives that represented a voluntary supplemental pension system.

The referendum did not settle the pension fight. The lack of consensus broke down the coalition government between the Social Democrats and the Farmers’ League, and a new election failed to bring resolution: the outcome was a 115-115 split of seats in the second chamber. The Liberals drafted a compromise proposal that met with no success. The failure led Liberal MP Ture Königson to abstain, thus handing the victory to the Social Democrats.

Poster by unknown, 1957  © Unknown, 1957

Poster by Bengt Mellberg, 1957  © Bengt Mellberg, 1957

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power was at issue in the 1980 referendum, which once again presented three alternatives: two in favor of nuclear power and one against. The outcome was in favor of nuclear power.

Nuclear Accident Set the Agenda

The Three Mile Island accident in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania not only led to a call for a referendum, but also to a change in attitude among the pro-nuclear power parties. No one wanted to bet on keeping or building additional nuclear power plants. They wanted the existing reactors to be shut down before they had reached the end of their service life. The Center Party and the Communists favored dismantling the nuclear power plants as soon as possible.

Three Alternatives

The people were asked to choose among two alternatives for dismantling nuclear power, but had to consider three alternatives. The Social Democrats were afraid to campaign in tandem with the Moderates. For that reason, the Social Democrats and the Liberal Party supported Alternative Two and the Moderate Party Alternative One. The alternatives were very similar. The only difference was that Alternative Two also required future significant energy plants to be owned by state and local government, which the Moderate Party could not accept.

Alternative Three, the choice of the Center Party and the Communists, was based on dismantling all nuclear power within ten years. Voters came to regard the first two alternatives as pro-nuclear and the third as anti-nuclear.

Outcome Open to Interpretation

The criteria for the referendum were criticized. Three alternatives would make it difficult to interpret the results. But the politicians had learned part of their lesson after the occupational pension referendum. They had decided in advance how the results would be interpreted, and that the referendum would be a governing decision. If Alternatives One and Two gained a majority, it would entail gradual dismantlement.

But there were problems. Nobody named a date for the shutdown. The proposal stated that nuclear power would be dismantled, but with consideration given to future power supply requirements and in a way that safeguarded jobs and social welfare. We could interpret the ballots in many different ways. How long would the outcome of the referendum remain valid? As a result of this lack of clarity, nuclear power is still a political issue in Sweden, even though Alternatives One and Two garnered a combined 58 percent of the votes and Alternative Three only 38.7 percent.

Poster by uknown, 1994  © Unknown, 1994

Poster by unknown, 1994  © Unknown, 1994

Membership in the European Union

The 1994 referendum asked the people if they wanted Sweden to become a member of the EU, and the answer was affirmative. The politicians discussed whether the referendum vote should be governing or advisory. The center/right parties suggested that it should be a governing vote, which the Social Democrats opposed. They said that if that were the case, the people would be compelled to take a position on a finished bill. That would put the referendum at risk of being more about law than about a vision for the future. In addition, the Social Democrats did not want to hold a referendum in conjunction with the general election. It became an advisory referendum, but all parties pledged to comply with the outcome. The yes side won with 52.3 percent of the vote, compared to the no side’s 46.8 percent. Barely two months after the referendum results were in, we were members of the European Union.

Text sources: Olle Halldin/KB, Örjan Martinsson/Uppsala University, and the Swedish Government Offices.

Last updated: 2008-04-28
Contact person: Olof Halldin, e-mail: firstname.lastname@kb.se
Books från our collections

National Library