When we arrive home, the steady flow of letters, supermarket ads, bills and newspapers, maybe even a postcard, are a familiar sight. These days, this pile of post is likely to contain a golden ticket to a recurrent event that sometimes gets easily forgotten. This little white, blue and yellow envelope, contains a voting card, and while this is not news to most Swedes, for new Swedish residents it is often a surprising, memorable moment, linked to the virtues of a democracy of their new home, all wrapped up in a letter.
The cornerstone of democracy is undoubtedly voting. For those born and raised in a democracy, voting constitutes a natural right and responsibility. For those who've never lived in one, it's often an aspiration or a dream. At election time, Sweden stands out as one of the most inclusive countries in the world.
Here, non-Swedish citizens have the right to both vote and stand as candidates in the regional and municipal elections (but not national elections) if they have legally resided in Sweden for a continuous period of three years. Citizens from other EU countries gain these rights as soon as they are registered in the Swedish population register. The result of this is a great impact politics on the local level. Research from International IDEA shows that in particular, the political participation of migrants and refugees in Sweden is important for (increasing) the quality of democracy.
Today, approximately 50 countries around the world – ranging from Chile to South Korea, New Zealand and the Netherlands – allow migrants to participate in elections after a certain period of residence. Granting voting rights to migrants is often a controversial issue, given that voting is traditionally linked to citizenship. In the majority of host countries, only certain categories of voters, such as citizens from EU member states, are entitled to vote and usually only in local elections.
Sweden stands out in that regard given that it has granted voting rights since the 70s to all migrants with three years of residency, regardless of their country of origin.
Through these measures, Swedish authorities wanted to enhance the participation and political inclusion of migrants and raise the perception that their voice also mattered. Indeed, recent research by International IDEA has found that voting is an important means of integrating into a host society, educating migrants about their civic responsibilities and preparing future active citizens. It also provides migrants with incentives to learn more about the democratic norms of the host society and motivates them to strengthen their knowledge of the host country's political system.
Ultimately, political rights can contribute to an increased feeling of belonging and acceptance. Thus, political rights should not only be seen as an end goal, or a reward for successful integration, but as a means in itself. As illustrated in International IDEA's Global State of Democracy report, host countries with inclusive migration policies such as Sweden, are more likely to have a higher quality of democracy, especially when it comes to the aspects of representative government and fundamental rights.
Some Swedish institutions have taken concrete steps to link theory to practice. To ensure that all eligible voters are aware of the electoral process, migrant voters are targeted through the use of minority languages in voter information campaigns. For instance, in view of the upcoming elections, the Swedish Election Authority provides information on how to vote into 31 languages, including Arabic and Somali.
Furthermore, any legal resident, including migrants, can join any Swedish political party of their choice, paying just a membership fee. Party membership can be requested through online forms or by visiting the nearest party office in the area. In certain cases, political parties have even adopted voluntary quotas for candidates with non-Nordic immigrant background, with the view to increasing internal diversity and addressing the issue of migrants' underrepresentation in political life.
Ultimately democracy relies on people, citizens or residents to actively take part in the democratic processes. Whether it's through political party engagement, civil society involvement, debates, articles, manifestations or voting, we all have the responsibility to engage.
The elections this Sunday are just one important way to contribute, and for many it can be a first important step to integration that started when they found that small, white, blue and yellow envelope waiting for them at home.
Article written by Adina Trunk, special adviser to the Secretary-General at International IDEA, and Lina Antara, programme officer at International IDEA.