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

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.

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

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.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Sweden's part leaders ahead of the 2018 election

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.

READ ALSO: This is who Swedes want to be PM in 2018

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.


‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

But the most common recurring story reflect Sweden’s longstanding guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.