Opinion: Getting foreign-born Swedes to vote in 2018 should be a key issue

Opinion: Getting foreign-born Swedes to vote in 2018 should be a key issue
File photo of a polling booth in the 2014 election. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
Getting more foreigners to become politically integrated in Sweden should be a key issue in the build-up to the 2018 election, argue migration professor Pieter Bevelander and political scientist Mikael Spång.

There is a year to go until the 2018 election and debates over what form of government can be formed are already underway. The same of course applies to what parties voters will vote for, as well as their representation in the Riksdag, county councils and city councils. Participation and representation are important in this context, both in general and in terms of the differences between different groups. In a new Delmi report published earlier in September, 12 researchers from different disciplines studied the participation, voting patterns and political representation of foreigners.

Swedish voter participation is among the highest in Europe, but there are big differences between people born in Sweden and those born abroad. In the last Riksdag election, almost 90 percent of natives voted, compared to 75 percent of citizens born abroad. And the variation between different groups of foreign-born citizens is large.

The lowest voter participation is found among individuals born in Asia, Africa and European countries outside of the Nordics. The fact that the majority of those immigrating to Sweden today come from precisely those regions provides an indication that voter participation could fall further in the future.

Foreign citizens who have been registered as living in Sweden for at least three years also have the right to vote in municipal elections. However only a third of foreign citizens exercised that right to vote.

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People born in Sweden to foreign-born parents vote to a higher degree than those who immigrated themselves, which in all likelihood is due to the socialization that growing up in Sweden entails. At the same time some similarities remain from the parents’ generation, as voter participation is lower among individuals with a foreign background than those with Sweden-born parents.

Women also vote to a greater degree than men. That applies to people born in Sweden as well as most foreign-born groups. The study also supports previous research showing that foreigners tend to vote for parties on the left. People from countries outside of Europe are most likely to vote for the Left Party and Social Democrats. Another new result we found in the report is that foreigners are more likely to vote for an individual candidate (as opposed to the party) than natives, a pattern found in municipal, general and European Parliament elections.

What's the basis of these differences? Two important factors are: education level and income. We have known for some time that individuals with a low income and education vote to a lesser degree. Foreigners are overrepresented both in groups with the lowest incomes and lowest education.

How long a person has lived in Sweden and whether you have Swedish citizenship also has a major bearing on the likelihood to vote. Many of those who have come to Sweden relatively recently have not yet joined political life. The difference between foreigners with and without Swedish citizenship is striking. About 70 percent of foreigners with Swedish citizenship voted in municipal elections in 2014, compared to 30 percent for foreigners without Swedish citizenship.

Political integration is now just expressed in a group’s voting patterns. The chance to be a candidate for political posts is also central for participation in a representative democracy. In this regard there are also differences between native and foreign-born people. Representation of foreign-born citizens in the Riksdag, county and city councils has certainly increased during the last 20 years, but the group is still underrepresented. Following the last election, the number of foreign-born MPs was eight percent, while the proportion of foreign-born people in the population eligible for election was 12 percent. In the city council the representation gap is somewhat larger.

The report shows that socioeconomic factors as well as differences in education, employment and income between native and foreign-born people only partially explain the representation gap at a municipal level, even if the capacity for these factors to explain differences has increased over time.

An interesting result that we flagged up in the report is the importance of the number of city council seats in relation to the size of the population eligible to vote. As much as a third of the representation gap at aggregate levels can be explained by the fact that foreigners are more likely to live in larger municipalities than natives, where the number of council seats proportionally available to the voting population is significantly lower than in smaller municipalities.

Internal factors within parties also impact the opportunities for foreign-born candidates to be nominated for election. Factors that are important to party recruiting are, among other things, knowledge, linguistic ability and network. A role as an “immigrant politician” can sometimes offer a way into politics but in the long run can also become a hindrance to a continued political career.

Another kind of obstacle can come from the party’s internal democratic process and calculations. Being foreign born can be an advantage if the party wants to increase its number of voters in a particular group or region, but it can also be a hindrance when the party weighs the potential gains from certain voters against the risk of losing others.

The report’s results provide reason to contemplate the political integration of foreigners as well as the future of democracy. The fact that even children of foreigners vote to a lesser extent than children of those born in Sweden is concerning, and prompts questions about democratic education on a more general level. The fact that voting for an individual is higher among foreign-born voters can be interpreted in several ways, either that the group is engaged and well-informed, or that confidence in individual politicians is stronger than that of parties or ideologies.

In the world around us liberal democracy has been challenged in recent years. When faith in democratic governance decreases among large groups, among both foreign-born and natives, we face more profound problems than the fact that not all citizens have their votes and perspectives represented in decision-making bodies. Considering the parliamentary situation at present, the voting deficit among people with a foreign background should be perceived as an area of huge potential for political parties. If voter participation increases among groups with low political participation, that could also impact the parliamentary stalemate we are experiencing right now.

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Getting new Swedes to go out and vote and get involved in political work should be a central democratic task for all political parties ahead of the election in 2018.

This is a translation of an opinion piece originally published in Swedish by Dagens Nyheter.