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Majority of foreign-background Finnish citizens don’t vote

Many naturalised Finns aren't sure what the country's political parties stand for and often end up not taking advantage of their right to vote, two experts say.

Photo of Finnish campaign posters for parliamentary election candidates. Image: Marja Väänänen / Yle

Twenty-year-old Tom Efrati - who holds Finnish and Israeli citizenship - says he plans to vote in Finland's parliamentary elections in a couple of weeks.

Efratiis one of more than 100,000 Finns with foreign backgrounds in the country who have the right to vote.

"Absolutely I plan to vote. I think that every vote counts. The work of one MP affects us all. Finland has a good system that should be supported. The parliamentary elections are possibly the best opportunity to affect important decisions," Efrati said.

However, according to recent voting records, Efrati is an exception to the norm. The majority of naturalised Finns don't bother to vote in national and regional elections at all.

The Our Election campaign, organised by the Network of Multicultural Associations (Moniheli), is aiming to change the situation.

Moniheli coordinator Julie Breton said there are several reasons why people in this diverse group usually don't bother to vote.

Various barriers and obstacles

"For example, a lack of language skills - and many don't even know whether they have the right to vote and aren't familiar with Finnish politics. It can also be that they don't feel like they're part of Finnish society,"Breton said.

Researcher Josefina Sipinen, who is writing a doctoral thesis on the topic, said there are other factors as well, including a person's background and how the democratic process worked in their country of origin.

Sipinen said that if it wasn't possible - or even imaginable - to vote in their original home country, they aren't necessarily motivated to vote in their new home, either.

"If the party system [where they lived before] was very different, then Finnish politics may be very foreign, especially if they've moved here as an adult," Sipinen said.

Turnout levels

During Finland's presidential election in 2018 there was a voter turnout of just under 70 percent among native Finnish citizens, while the turnout sank to 37.5 percent for voters with native languages other than Finnish or Swedish.

Turnout among voters whose mother tongue was something other than Finnish or Swedish was even worse during 2017's municipal election (23.9%), particularly considering that even non-citizen residents were eligible to vote.

However, there was also lower turnout in general among Finnish and Swedish speakers (57.5%) in the municipal election as well.

People who've become citizens are a diverse group, according to language demographics data taken from voter records in the last presidential and municipal elections.

Some vote, others not so much

For example, people with Somali backgrounds took part in municipal elections much more than they did in the president's race. In terms of proportions, members of the Somali community had a voter turnout rate that was close to native Finns in the last municipal election.

German speakers, on the other hand, voted quite a bit in both elections, but the proportion of those residents with full voting rights is small.

People with Finnish citizenship can vote in all national and municipal elections, while permanent residents are limited to voting in municipal elections. Read more about voting in Finland here. In European Parliament elections, citizens of other EU states may vote either in Finland or their home country.

Sipinen and Breton both said they think it is important that more Finns with immigrant backgrounds become more engaged in society and should also take part as candidates.

Our Election aims to get out the vote

Moniheli's Our Election campaign is aimed at encouraging immigrant-background Finns to head to the polls for the parliamentary elections and has arranged various workshops and election debates around the country.

The campaign's website features basic information about the election in around 20 languages, but lacks specific details about the various parties and the differences between them.

"It's not quite enough just to inform people about their right to vote. People want to know about the policies that parties are running on. There is still very limited information that would reach people who speak foreign languages," Breton said.

Moniheli, founded in 2010, is a cooperation network for multicultural organisations. As of 2017 the network had about 100 members.