what happens in the north. scandinavian constitutions #1
Autumn 2018 is an election time in Sweden. Elections are crucial part of democratic system and Scandies are doing it well. Scandinavian countries for many years get to the podium of democracy world index. I thought of taking Swedish elections as an opportunity to research Scandinavian countries and their political systems. They rise from similar historical conditions and traditions, but still have some differences.
In the first text I wanted to cover basic information about constitutions in Scandinavian countries. Later on I will focus on Sweden, Norway and Denmark, a bit on Finland. Taking that into consideration, here I give also an overall background on Åland Islands, Faroe Islands and Greenland. It all means some (and by some I mean a lot) legal information. I tried to find a balance between being informative and still entertaining. If someone got here only to find principles of Scandinavian political systems, be my guest and check out just the chart below (by the way, hello strange-looking-for-law person!).
I think that most people, even if they can’t explain the details, have similar image and connotations with the concept “constitution”. There was the French constitution, the U.S. constitution, basic rights, separation of powers, civil rights and obligations. For the most of my life I’ve known only Polish constitution, so I thought that all the other ones are built in the same manner. Doing some law (by mistake, as a mistake, mistake, mistake, mistake) I learned that it is true only for the countries from the former Eastern Bloc - constitutions here are composed of similar pieces. Those countries, after regaining freedom, created very much detailed fundamental acts. On the opposite, in the lands of not disturbed (at all or for a long time) democracy, there was no need for that. Scandinavian countries are the example of that approach.
Scandinavian constitutions are concise. They establish basic rules of the political system, fundamental rights and obligations of the citizens, competences of the state institutions. They don’t emphasise the separation of powers, more their correlation. However, the issue that was stressed is the principle of non-interference of the government in the judicial system. Scandic constitutions barely mention civil organisations, they omit the public services and political propaganda. Civil rights have usually medieval traditions. It varies, of course, from country to country. Norwegian civil rights were secured overall, while Swedish ones are fairly detailed (especially economic ones).
Norwegian constitution is the oldest of them all, being also the second oldest in Europe and second oldest in continuous force. About its history and how it changed you can read here, and even as it underwent modernization, the language of the new laws is the same as two hundred years ago.
The process of changing the constitution in Denmark and in Sweden looks similar. In both of those countries the new act has to be confirmed by the parliament once before the election and second time after it and the content has to remain the same for both of those voting. In Denmark, after the second vote and the acceptance by government, the new constitution has to be approved of at least 40% of the voters in the referendum. Everyone, who is not taking part in the referendum, votes against the new project. In Sweden, after the second vote, since 1980, referendum also can take place. But, in the opposite to Denmark, it’s not obligatory. It can happen if ⅓ of the parliament members vote in favour of the referendum. Secondly, the parliament is not obliged to change the constitution even if most of the voters wanted that.
Very important change in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian constitutions was to allow women to succeed to the throne. In Denmark it happened in 1953 as the king Frederick IX and his wife Ingrid had three daughters and no male heir. In Sweden the succession was determined by a special act from 1810. By then it was out of the question for women to succeed the throne. The act was changed in 1980 in favour of absolute primogeniture - now the oldest child, regardless of sex is the heir to the throne. The same thing took place in Norway in 1990 (although it wasn’t a separate act but the constitution itself that was amended) with the important difference, that in Sweden new law was retroactive while in Norway it is not. Speaking English, it means that in Sweden current heir to the throne is princess Victoria, the eldest child, even despite the fact that she has a brother, prince Philip, and new law was enforced after they were born. Prince Haakon of Norway has an older sister, but he remained the heir even after the amendment. It applies to his children - his oldest Ingrid is expected to become the second female ruler of Norway.
According to Scandic constitutions the monarch should be informed about the current affairs, but he or she has no actual power. The ruler takes part in the process of creating a government and ratifies more important decisions. Swedish king is the most powerless of them all, which turned out to be a problem when the scandal at the Swedish Academy broke out. It’s interesting case for another text, but to give a short context: Swedish Academy was formed by Gustav III, king with absolute power and only the king could influence the legislation around this institution. The power of the king diminished, Swedish Academy survived with 18th century law. The scandal paralysed the institution; the only person who could do anything about it and was at the same time powerless was the king.
As the Scandinavian monarchs, president of Iceland has also limited powers. The country became a republic in 1944 and since then had 6 presidents and two of them already became my favourites: in 1980 Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the first women chosen to be a president in a democratic country and the current person holding this office, Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannessonand, is a historian. How great Iceland is?
The League of Nations decided in 1921 that Åland Islands is an autonomous territory under Finland’s sovereignty. The area became neutral and demobilized. The status of the islands is determined by Act on the Autonomy from 1920, changed twice: in 1951 and 1991. The act guarantees an independent administration of the internal affairs as long as it does not pose a threat to internal and external peace. The act has to be accepted by the regional parliament - Ålands Lagting. It consists of 30 members, chosen in direct and proportional elections. The president of Finland has a power of veto only in two cases: when Lagting exceeds its legislative authority or if a bill would affect Finland’s security.
Besides the parliament, Åland Islands have its own administration. They are autonomous in the area of policing, healthcare, education, culture, economics, public transport, environment.
Åland islands have one representative in the Finnish parliament - Riksdag/Eduskunta. Official language on the islands is Swedish. Land there can be bought only by a person having the right of permanent residence (either people born there and/or living there for 5 years). The inhabitants are not obliged to do military service.
In 1946 Faroese independence referendum took place. 50,73% of the votes were in favour of the independence. A unilateral declaration of independence was deemed by Denmark as an illegal act. Two years later, in 1948, Home Rule Act of the Faroe Islands was signed by the two sides, giving autonomy to Faroe Islands to some extent. Islands have the right to decide of the infrastructure development, agriculture, trade. The judicial system is subordinated to the Danish one, as the Åland’s to Finnish.
Faroe Islands has its own parliament, Lagting, consisting of 33 members, chosen every four years in direct and proportional elections. Lagting is the highest legislative organ. It chooses the executive body, governed by lagman - the Prime Minister.
Faroe Islands choose two representatives to Danish Folketing.
Greenland was a Danish colony since the 18th century. In 1953 it became a full-fledged province of the Danish Realm. Since then it gained right to choose two representatives to Danish Folketing. Greater autonomy was granted by the Greenland Home Rule, which first passed positively referendum and then the parliament in 1979.
As on the Faroe Islands, Greenland has its parliament, Inatsisartut, and a regional government. The parliament gradually takes administration over public institutions and affairs: education, recreation, libraries, social security policies, industry, healthcare, public transport. National defence and foreign affairs apply to the whole kingdom, so Greenland’s government has no influence on that.
The text is dedicated and inspired by my very dear friend, Karolka.
Thank you for being my friend.