Parliamentary Democracy in Scandinavia: Shifting Dimensions of Citizens Control

Special Issue Scandinavian Political Studies
2004 - Volume 27 Issue 2, pp.89-225

by Torbjörn Bergman (ed.)

Read it online: Scandinavian Political Studies

The final project publication on the principal-agent theme is a first attempt to follow up on some of the major results from Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracies and to look in greater detail at parliamentary governance through five case studies (Bergman, 2004). This research is published as a special issue of Scandinavian Political Studies, 'Parliamentary Democracy in Scandinavia: Shifting dimensions of citizen control'. The articles highlight the most recent changes in the chain of delegation and scrutinize the role of political parties in parliamentary democracies and the growing importance of external constraints. The specific purpose of each article is to assess the trajectory of institutional reform and evolution in a Scandinavian country (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden). To what extent do the general West European developments apply to each of the Scandinavian countries? Are there any signs of contrasting developments?

The contributors show that political parties have enacted democratic reforms to try to strengthen the constitutional parliamentary chain. All five countries bear witness to these changes. Changes in the constitutional chain of delegation and accountability have, on the whole, favored the principals (voters, parliament, prime ministers) rather than their agents. Simultaneously, however, established parties have declined in importance and there are more and stronger external constraints than before. This implies that the democratic principals have gained influence, but within a narrower field of action. It is important to note, however, that the partially new system of governance that is emerging cannot unequivocally be called better or worse than the traditional one. The changes are too multi-faceted to allow such an uncomplicated judgment.

One country, Finland, has moved in the opposite direction to that of the other four countries. While Finnish parliamentary politics used to be surrounded by strong constraints such as the powerful president and the country's relationship with the Soviet Union, recent developments have instead favored the parliamentary chain. In this respect, Finland is becoming more similar to the others. The chain of delegation from voters to civil servants is now simpler than before and subject to fewer external constraints on popular sovereignty. In fact, in contrast to the general trend of de-parlamentarization, Finland is probably one of the few West European countries where parliamentary democracy has become less constrained since the 1980s.

Together, the articles in this special issue show that those who argue that the nation state and national level democracy is being 'squeezed out' have some strong arguments on their side. Nonetheless, the parliamentary institutions of Western Europe are strong and resilient, and those in Scandinavia are sustained by comparatively high levels of popular support and participation. For students of democracy, in Scandinavia as well as in Western Europe as a whole, the challenge is not to abandon the study of representative democracy but rather to understand the new forms of governance and perhaps to suggest remedies for modern agency problems.