How Sweden hopes to get more foreign-born residents voting


How Sweden hopes to get more foreign-born residents voting
Choosing from ballot papers during the early voting period. Photo: Hanna Franzén/TT
When Sweden holds its general election in less than two weeks, between 80 and 90 percent of the eligible population are expected to go to the polls. The country has one of Europe’s highest voter turnouts, but foreign-born residents are less likely than native Swedes to have their say. As part of The Local’s Sweden in Focus series, we took a look at why that’s the case and what’s being done to break the trend.

This feature is part of The Local’s Sweden in Focus series, taking an in-depth look at the issues that make this country tick. Click here to read more articles.

“If you want to see change, you have to be a part of the process,” says Ahmed Abdirahman, a policy expert at Stockholm’s Chamber of Commerce and founder of NGO The Global Village. With his NGO, he also set up Järvaveckan, an annual political festival held in Stockholm’s northern suburbs.

“I don’t want people to be sitting in [Stockholm neighbourhood] Tensta saying everything is terrible and politicians don’t care about us,” he explains. “There’s no use cursing the darkness; we need to light a candle. Nothing can be done alone, so we all have responsibility: journalists, politicians, NGOs, citizens.”

His neighbourhood, Tensta in the north of Stockholm, is listed as one of Sweden’s 61 ‘vulnerable’ areas – districts characterized by low socioeconomic status and which also typically have a high proportion of foreign residents. These areas have a very low voter turnout; in the municipal election in 2014, only 57.5 percent of Tensta’s eligible voters went to the polls. Neighbouring Rinkeby had the lowest voting rate in Stockholm at around 50 percent, which fell to just 33 percent when considering only foreign-born voters.

In 2018, Sweden is marking 100 years of a democracy often ranked as one of the world’s strongest. This is also an election year, with early voting stations already open for Sweden’s eligible voters, many of whom have roots abroad. Just under a quarter of Swedish residents are either born abroad or born in Sweden to immigrant parents, according to the most recent figures from Statistics Sweden.

Those with citizenship, available to foreigners who have usually lived in Sweden for at least five years (or as few as two, if they moved to the country with a Swedish partner) have the right to vote in parliamentary elections, and Sweden is one of around 60 countries where many non-citizen foreigners can vote in municipal and county elections. In 1976, the right to vote in these elections was extended all EU citizens resident in Sweden and those from other countries who have been registered for at least three years. When introduced, it was the biggest change to Sweden’s electoral lists since the country allowed female suffrage in the 1920s.

But as is the case in most countries, foreign residents and citizens are less likely than those born in Sweden to exercise their right to vote.

“If democracy loses its legitimacy among large groups in society, there’s a risk it will shake to its core,” authors of a government-commissioned report on voting behaviour warned last year.

The report, by The Migration Studies Delegation (Delmi) whose findings are used as a basis for Sweden’s migration policies, showed that among native Swedes, the voting rate was close to 90 percent, while among foreign-born residents it was only 72 percent.

This is still a high figure in a country where voting is not compulsory (in the UK, for comparison, overall turnout has stayed below 70 percent since the turn of the century, and in the USA, the rate has barely crept above 60 percent over the past 100 years), but the difference is striking. While the overall turnout saw an increase, continuing an upward trend that has been steady since 2002, the proportion of foreign-born residents who voted remained stable.

READ ALSO: How to vote in the 2018 Swedish elections


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