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How Sweden hopes to get more foreign-born residents voting

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How Sweden hopes to get more foreign-born residents voting
Choosing from ballot papers during the early voting period. Photo: Hanna Franzén/TT
16:15 CEST+02:00
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


Prime Minister Stefan Löfven speaking in Rinkeby in June. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Within the category of foreign-born residents, the voting rate varies widely, unsurprisingly given that immigrants in Sweden are a diverse group who come from very different countries and for very different reasons. 

"Among Swedish citizens with origins in the Nordics, North America, Oceania and Latin America, voting participation was at around 80 percent, while the share of Swedes who voted and were born in Africa and Asia was below 70 percent," Delmi's report noted.

An even larger difference was between foreigners with Swedish citizenship and those without. In the first category, members of which can vote in all three of Sweden's elections, around 70 percent voted in 2014's municipal elections (held on the same day as national elections), while only 30 percent of the non-citizen foreigners who were eligible to vote exercised their right to do so.

National background is not the only factor linked to turnout; there are also differences between genders and age groups; and some of the starkest differences are recorded between different geographical areas and socioeconomic status. One explanation for the lower turnout among foreign-born residents is that Sweden's foreign residents, particularly those from outside the EU, are more likely to live on lower incomes and to have a lower level of education.

"Time is here of the essence," Pieter Bevelander, one of the study's authors, tells The Local. "Increased years in the country does mean that people obtain skills and knowledge of society. This will increase their income and affect their housing choice and so on, and increase their [sense of] belonging to the new country. What exactly the chicken or the egg is, we do not know, but all these things are inter-related."

Another trend the report picked up on was that children of foreign parents, although more likely to vote than first-generation immigrants, were still less likely to do it compared to their peers with Swedish-born parents. The authors described this result as "concerning, and prompt[ing] questions about democratic education on a more general level".

The more connected people are, the more likely they are to vote. Married people have been more likely to vote than unmarried people in Sweden since 1944, when this kind of data was first collected, and employed people are also more likely to vote.

Foreigners who live centrally in Sweden's cities, or have white-collar jobs, are likely to have more access to this kind of network, allowing them to learn about Swedish democracy more easily and participate in the social aspect of politics and voting. But in Rinkeby-Tensta, half the population is aged under 26 and the majority are immigrants, many from countries outside the EU, including those with a weak democracy. Segregation in schools, housing and the labour market all mean that this division can continue even through generations.

This year, the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society (MUCF) has invested in a range of initiatives to raise turnout, with a particular focus on vulnerable areas, and schools. The idea is that introducing high school students to the democratic system early on will encourage participation once they reach 18.

"It's both to teach students how to vote, and to raise awareness about the democratic process and get people talking about politics at a younger age. They might also go home and talk about politics with their parents," explains the MUCF's general director, Lena Nyberg.

"As a young person you might come to Sweden and you've never gone with your parents to an election in your home country because your parents have never voted or it's not possible in your home country, so the school elections help people familiarize themselves with how you vote," she tells The Local.

Nyberg argues that not only is it important for a healthy democracy that people from all different parts of society use their right to vote, but it can also strengthen trust in society. "We can see in our countries and many others that there's a trend of growing distrust in democracy and society. Raising awareness about the democratic system and vote is a way of showing you can participate and have an impact," she says.

As well as efforts in schools, there have been projects across the country targeting non-voting adults and aiming to engage them in the democratic process. In a similar project to the MUCF's school elections, the adult education centre in Rinkeby hosted a panel debate with local politicians and will hold a 'test election' two days before the actual vote, so that people can familiarize themselves with the process.

The Local contacted Sweden's nine major parties to ask how they were tackling low voter turnout, and all those which responded stressed the importance of a high turnout to a healthy democracy. Many said they were engaged in campaigning and door-knocking in vulnerable areas, and have made their policy materials available in multiple languages as well as in simplified Swedish for newer arrivals.

Local councils have organized campaigns too, using social media as well as hiring "democracy ambassadors" to spread information about how to vote (for example, the fact that anyone not in the country on polling day can take advantage of 'early voting') and how to find out information about the different parties. These people, often young adults on a summer job contract, have received training in political neutrality and most speak multiple languages. Some have been stationed in squares or visiting events such as language cafes, where foreign-born residents meet to learn and practise Swedish, and even going door to door.

Other organizations have started projects aimed at specific groups, including the Swedish Women's Lobby, which for the first time this year launched a 'Rösträtt' (Voting right) project targeting foreign-born women in Sweden's vulnerable areas. The programme includes debates, events with politicians, and other activities aimed at increasing the group's understanding of the Swedish political system.


Democracy ambassadors have been raising awareness of how the voting process works across Sweden. Photo: Swedish Women's Lobby

"These women should have the same opportunities to be part of the society as all other women in Sweden," Clara Berglund, the lobby's general secretary, tells The Local. In total, she estimates that around 14,000 women will be reached by the project, either through events or through information materials available in nine different languages which explain Sweden's voting system and where its parties stand on different issues. 

The lobby carried out a survey to find out how these women feel about Sweden's political process, and why non-voters haven't gone to the polls. "It's partly that they don't know how the electoral system works and their rights, or they might feel like the political proposals don't reflect their reality – the political parties don't reach these people," explains Berglund.

This is why it was important to organizers to recruit women of different ages, backgrounds, and parts of society to become 'ambassadors' and run these events. The response to the initial call for ambassadors was so great that the lobby had to close applications, and that's not the only positive sign Berglund has seen.

"We've met a lot of women who have become engaged, some say they will vote and others say they want to be involved in the next election, either with a party or in some other way." And she hopes that this will have a ripple effect, with each engaged woman encouraging others in her social circles to take part in the election. "Right now, we have a campaign where we're encouraging women to bring a friend to vote early, or to bring a friend to the valstugor [election huts] and learn more about the election. People are more likely to vote if other people they know are engaged."

However, Nyberg from the MUCF warns that special efforts ahead of votes will not be enough to increase trust in institutions long-term. "We have recommended to the government several times that it's something we should be working on long-term. I hope that after this election, there will begin long-term work with building up trust in democracy," she says.

Abdirahman, the NGO founder in Tensta, is also convinced of this, and stresses that politicians can do more to engage foreign-born residents in vulnerable areas by talking 'to' them instead of only 'about' them.

"Usually when politicians come to the suburbs, it's after a shooting or a car burning, to talk about that issue and complain about how bad it is," he tells The Local.

The gap could be bridged by better understanding of the experiences and priorities of people in these areas, he says. This includes challenging assumptions people make about voting patterns in these behaviours. This year, only the Green Party and Social Democrats had valstugor in Rinkeby Square, just one example of how the parties on the right side of the political spectrum have a lesser presence in these areas.

"But that's not good for democracy, and it's not smart for political parties. In Rinkeby, around 50 percent go and vote. They might mostly vote left, but there are still a lot of people who haven't voted and haven't made up their minds, so you can reach out to them," Abdirahman explains.

"In the 61 areas, there are half a million people, that's five percent of the Swedish population. You can turn around a whole election with that, especially now when all the political parties are so close!" he adds. "We have to make these people interesting for politicians, and the way to do that is to use tools they recognize: reports, numbers, surveys."

Research by The Global Village gives an insight into the views and leanings of people in the area. Nationally, healthcare, immigration and education are voters' key concerns, whereas for those living in Sweden's vulnerable areas, law and order is the top priority. Abdirahman also points out an overwhelmingly negative view of housing segregation, which he says goes against common assumptions that Sweden's foreign-born residents choose to live in specific areas.


Campaign stands for the Green Party and Social Democrats in Rinkeby Square. Photo: The Local

The work needs to go both ways in order to be effective, so the task of raising voter turnout can be seen as a dual challenge: encouraging politicians to engage people in these areas more, and encouraging the residents themselves to take an active role in the democratic and political processes. 

"Sweden spends tons of money on these areas, but that hasn't produced the long term results we want to see. It's top down and it's usually not the locals who are running the projects," Abdirahman says.

When he set up a politics event in his local neighbourhood, it became one of the biggest events in the political calendar in just three years. Järvaveckan, a nine-day festival, has featured talks from all of Sweden's major party leaders for the past two years, as well as other talks, seminars and events.

In its first year, back in 2016, it was on a much smaller scale. Two weeks before his NGO's annual film festival in the summer of 2016, Abdirahman had the idea of inviting politicians to the event to introduce themselves to the attendees. Five parties agreed to send representatives, including the Green Party's spokesperson Gustav Fridolin.
 
"I saw people sitting there on the ground and it was beautiful to see a party leader arrive on their bicycle and then sit and talk with the locals. I thought how much that must mean for the people he was talking to – and it meant he could understand more about life here," the NGO founder recalls. "The next year, all the party leaders said yes. It became huge, much faster than I could have expected, which I think is because it came from us; it was the local people asking them to come here and talk to us."

In 2017, everyone in Sweden heard about Järvaveckan, partly because the prime minister chose not to go to Sweden's biggest political festival Almedalen, but attended the festival in the suburbs, bringing media attention along with him. Around 13,000 people attended, a figure which was more than doubled in 2018. This year, party leaders' speeches were translated live into Arabic, Somali and English through a mobile app, allowing residents to participate even if their Swedish wasn't fluent.

Abdirahman says he feels like a change is under way, and that Järvaveckan has been a part of that.

"It's become an important platform nationally – all the speeches and promises are recorded. If there's no change, we can say 'this is what you said, we've got the video, what happened to your goals for these areas?'" he explains.

"It's not enough to put responsibility on the politicians alone, we citizens are the ones choosing them. We also have to think about what happens between elections, who are the politicians closest to us who affect our lives – need to know their names and have dialogues with them. We want to help the community get those facts so that conversation can be productive rather than 'no one is doing anything'."


Ahmed Abdirahman in Stockholm's Chamber of Commerce. Photo: The Local

As for the future, plans are in place to teach other communities how to set up similar events and strategies: a so-called Järva Model. This way, The Global Village will teach other local NGOs how they coped with everything from financial planning to communictaion.

There are already signs of similar movements; a month before the election, a Malmö-based social entrepreneur launched a similar event in one of the southern city's most notorious suburbs, Rosengård. "I think this will bring people knowledge about democracy and the election, about what every participating party talks about," founder Christian Glasnovic said when he launched the event. In the previous election, turnout in the Herrgården district of Rosengård was 52 percent.

"It's quite positive, because there's not a lot of people around here who would have the courage to go somewhere else to find out about the political parties," one attendee at the event told The Local at the time.

But if the local populations are to remain engaged in politics, it's crucial that politicians and the media do enough to show that politics does reflect and affect this groups.

"The media has to make the election night important and inclusive for people in these areas. For example, talking about the turnout in these areas; discussing results in Rinkeby as well as [central Stockholm suburb] Södermalm, and not taking for granted what's happening there," Abdirahman suggests.

On the political side, policy-makers should follow up on any promises they make at community-held festivals, and continuing to pay attention to foreign-born residents and the areas they live in even when not canvassing for votes. Meanwhile, the media can have an impact by covering issues that affect these groups, such as housing segregation, problems for work-permit holders, and delays in family reunion residential permits.

It's only by tackling both challenges simultaneously; encouraging residents to take more interest in the democratic process, and encouraging politicians to take more notice of the residents, that the voter turnout among Sweden's foreign-born population will increase long-term.

Thank you for reading. If you liked this article, please consider supporting The Local's independent journalism by becoming a Member. If you are already a Member, please feel free to log in and share your thoughts in the comments section below. Kind regards, Emma Löfgren (Editor, The Local Sweden)

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