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"It’s as if those residents don’t deserve better" — suburban councillors say under-representation has real-life impact

Northern and eastern Helsinki were underrepresented among councillors elected in the 2017 municipal elections. 

Helsinki city council has more councillors resident in central districts than in the outer suburbs. Picture is from a meeting in 2013. Image: Helsingin kaupunki / Pertti Nisonen
Yle News

Two-thirds of Helsinki city councillors live in the capital's wealthier central neighbourhoods, and councillors from the less exclusive outer suburbs say that can have damaging effects on decision-making.

Veronika Honkasalo, a Left Alliance councillor from Puistola in the north of the city, says that her run-down local railway station is evidence of this neglect. Lifts at the station have been out of order for months at a time.

"It’s as if those residents don’t deserve better," said Honkasalo. "A station in Töölö would certainly never be allowed to be in such bad shape."

"Segregation is a big problem in this city, and it is apparent in the differences in educational achievements and health among Helsinki residents. These differences are often greater within our city than they are nationwide, which is concerning."

Yle reporter Ndéla Faye told the APN podcast what she found when looking into this story. Listen here via this embedded player, or via Yle Areena, Spotify (siirryt toiseen palveluun), Apple Podcasts (siirryt toiseen palveluun) or your usual podcast player using the RSS feed (siirryt toiseen palveluun).

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Finland uses the d'Hondt list system in elections, which allows voters to select any candidate on any party list, regardless of where they live. The candidates are then elected in order of popularity, in proportion to the percentage of votes cast for each party.

That means there's no guarantee that there'll be councillors from any part of the city.

Data from the municipality of Helsinki show that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the 71 current councillors who listed an address live in the more affluent central neighbourhoods. Details were missing from 14 councillors whose postal address had been listed as Parliament, and some who had opted to keep their postal code secret.

Downtown Helsinki and nearby areas are home to pricier neighbourhoods, compared to outlying districts, where lower-income households tend to be concentrated.

The city started keeping records of where its councillors live in 1992. Since that time, northeastern Helsinki neighbourhood Pihlajamäki, for example, has not had a single elected city councillor, while a councillor from downtown Taka-Töölö has been elected 25 times. Women, young people and candidates from ethnic minority groups are also underrepresented.

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Image: Tommi Pylkkö / Yle

That's not necessarily a problem in itself, according to some councillors. Daniel Sazonov is a resident of central Helsinki neighbourhood Kamppi, chair of the conservative National Coalition Party’s Helsinki council group and a member of the City Board. He says Helsinki residents do not usually pick their candidates based on their neighbourhood.

"In a democracy, voters cannot be blamed for voting wrong. We have a clear aim of having a more even representation of candidates from all over the city, but we should not ignore the ever-changing nature of the city and its residents: people move areas depending on their place of study or employment, for example. This does not mean certain issues are not important."

Mika Raatikainen (Finns), on the other hand, says that place of residence can have an impact. Resident in Kontula, he is the only city councillor living among some 40,000 people in Mellukylä, Mellunmäki, Kontula, Vesala and Kurkimäki. In Vuosaari, where the population is also roughly 40,000, there are just two councillors.

"Of course all the politicians say decisions are made as a whole, for all of Helsinki, but if they've lived in one place for a long time they tend to think about that place when they are making decisions," said Raatikainen.

Finns Party councillors are also concentrated in the wealthier districts, with just two of six outside that central area.

Raatikainen says this is not something the party has specifically talked about, and cites his party's support in the poorer suburbs as evidence that voters do not mind.

"What I really wish is that people would vote, we should get it to 60 percent across the whole of Helsinki," said Raatikainen.

In the 2017 municipal elections, the overall voting percentage was 61.8 percent. The only areas where the voting level was lower than 50 percent, were all located in East Helsinki suburbs, with some neighbourhoods, such as Kontula, only having an average voting percentage of 47.3. The wealthy central neighbourhood of Ullanlinna had an average voting percentage of 71.7.

Socially diverse areas

Suldaan Said Ahmed, a Left Alliance member of the Helsinki City Council who lives in eastern Helsinki, told Yle News that he sees a clear reason why more councillors are elected from the city than from the suburbs.

"Political campaigning is much more visible in the wealthier downtown areas, and the threshold to stand for election also seems to be lower for people from wealthier areas," he said.

Councillors are needed to drive the interests of their local area, and have a direct impact on how resources are allocated, especially when it comes to issues such as daycare, early years education and sports opportunities.

The area in which a councillor lives does matter, as it affects their perception of things - albeit perhaps on a subconscious level, said Tuomas Rantanen, a Green Party Helsinki city councillor for the fifth time, and a longstanding resident of the East Helsinki suburb, Roihuvuori.

"When a person lives in a socially diverse area, they are more sensitive to identifying social challenges, and tend to allocate resources accordingly. But it should be noted that there are inequalities within central areas too, such as in Kallio, which is not exempt from its own social challenges and diversity."

Rantanen acknowledged, however, that suburban life is very different from mid-town life, and that over-emphasising one’s local area during an election campaign can also be off-putting to voters and could signal to them that the candidate only cares about issues affecting their own area, arguing it is a very fine balancing act between the two.

The next Helsinki municipal elections will be held in April 2021. Instead of attempting to increase marginalised people’s activity in municipal politics, politicians should focus on eradicating the causes behind people becoming marginalised in the first place, according to Rantanen.

"Thankfully, in Helsinki, there is still social diversity even in suburbs, and we do not have entire neighbourhoods solely made up of social housing, for example, unlike some other Nordic cities," he said.

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