The 2017 municipal elections in Finland will be held this Sunday on 9 April, with advance voting having already taken place from 29 March to 4 April. Finnish municipal elections are held on the third Sunday of April every 4 years to elect councilors in the 295 municipalities in continental Finland and 16 in the Province of Åland as of the beginning of 2017.
While typically only citizens can vote in elections, the Finnish municipal elections entitle foreign non-citizen residents of Finland to have a say after only 2 years of registered residence in a Finnish municipality, or only after 51 days for citizens of a European Union country, Switzerland or Norway. With the relatively high level of Finnish proficiency still often required to access information on migrant rights, and even more so for political issues, many migrants are thus not necessarily aware that they are entitled to participate in the municipal election process.
An “Our Election” event organized by Moniheli with Green Party MP Ozan Yanar.
According to the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX 2015), the political participation of migrants has been low in the previous two municipal elections in 2008 and 2012. The general voter turnout was at 61.2% in 2008 and 58.3% in 2012. However, among eligible foreign residents, voter participation was only at 19.6% in both years. With the right to vote comes the right to stand as a candidate, and for this there is an even lower rate of participation by eligible foreign residents.
While the number of candidates with a mother tongue other than Finnish, Swedish or Sami increased from 539 in 2008 and 680 in 2012, it translated to only 0.3% and 0.4% of elected representatives respectively (34 in 2008, 43 in 2012).
In an article by Merja Jutila Roon in November 2016, she indicated that this year, there is an increase of 35,000 migrants (non-citizen foreign residents) with the right to vote compared to the numbers in 2012. In addition, 25,000 migrants have received Finnish citizenship between 2013-2015 who are also eligible to cast their vote. According to the Finnish Population Information System, out of a total of 33,316 candidates in this year’s municipal elections, there are 729 candidates (2.2%) who do not speak either Finnish, Swedish, or Sami as their mother tongue.
An important point to be aware of is that the statistics based on one’s mother tongue is not a true reflection of not only the diversity that exists in Finland, but also of the true composition of the migrant population in Finland. Since access to a number of services and provisions are dependent on the language registered as mother tongue (e.g., language classes for children in Finnish schools), some Finnish citizens might still list their ethnic language as their mother tongue in order to continue getting access to specific language classes for their children, for example. Parents might also list Finnish as their child’s mother tongue despite speaking more than one language at home.
So the usage of the term “migrant” in the Finnish context is really not as clear cut. Who are we actually referring to when we use the term “migrant”? Often, the term “person of migrant background” is also used to refer to racialized Finnish citizens. At what point does someone stop being considered a “migrant other”?
There is no doubt that there has to be increased representation of migrants and persons of color (PoC) among elected officials in Finland. Visible representation is definitely one of the ways to empower migrant and racialized communities, on top of providing them with a political platform to ensure their rights are protected themselves (rather than only having white Finns speak for them). But we also have to be aware and acknowledge that not all migrants or racialized persons are automatically “woke” – some have unintentionally internalized the mechanisms of oppression and are also contributing to, and perpetuating, the institutional racist structures themselves. In this year’s municipal elections, candidates of migrant backgrounds are represented across the political spectrum in all of the political parties – even in Perussuomalaiset, which has consistently demonstrated their anti-migration position and negative stance towards minorities. We must constantly be critical of, and fight against, tokenized representation, which are often more harmful than beneficial to the cause of migrants and other minority groups in Finland.
So if you can vote and have yet to do it, how will you be using your vote this Sunday?