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"Believe it's possible": Foreign candidates look for success in Finland's local elections

Foreigners resident in Finland are eligible to vote and stand for election to local councils.

Pedro Aibéo, Natalia Rincon and Paul Brennan have all run for election to local councils -- with varying degrees of success. Image: Petteri Bülow / Yle

Finland’s next round of municipal elections are due in April 2021, and parties are currently scrambling to fill their candidate lists.

Most foreign nationals registered as living in Finland are eligible to vote in these elections, and also have the right to stand as a candidate. Traditionally voter turnout among the foreign community is very low, with just 19 percent of foreign residents exercising their democratic right in the 2017 election. One study partly attributed low voter enthusiasm among foreign nationals to lack of information.

Even fewer run for a seat on the local council, but at every election a small but steadily growing number of foreign candidates do overcome their reservations and put their name on the ballot paper.

Yle News asked several foreign-born candidates what they've enjoyed, what's been hard, and what they might do differently.

"Surprisingly, I got in!"

Originally from Nigeria, Paul Abbey moved to Finland from the UK in 2001 and settled with his family in the village of Tikkala, near Jyväskylä in Central Finland.

Upon arrival he found a society "relatively at peace with itself", a quality he attributed to the low level of social inequality in Finland. Essential services such as education and healthcare were "available and accessible to everybody", in stark contrast to his experience of life in both Nigeria and the UK.

However, Abbey recalls noticing a shift in Finnish society towards a "pronounced inequality" during the late 2000s. In 2012, he was encouraged to stand in local elections by a close friend and member of the Left Alliance.

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Paul Abbey has been a member of Jyväskylä city council since 2012. Image: Aura Abbey

"Surprisingly, I got in," Abbey says of his subsequent election to Jyväskylä city council, adding that his success was at least partly down to the support he received from the rank and file of the party.

Abbey believes it is important to forget about political divisions on the council and instead always be "open to talk to anyone".

"I have tried, as much as I can, to serve people regardless of what their political leanings are," Abbey explains. "I often have people come to me with issues, and I know they are supporters of another party, but I will try to help them to the best of my ability."

In the municipal elections of 2017 Abbey doubled his vote count and was comfortably re-elected to the council.

As he contemplates running for a third term in 2021, Abbey says that any foreign national hoping to win election, or re-election, must have three fundamental criteria: a clear political objective, a foundation of support within their local community and, above all else, self-belief.

"You must be willing to make mistakes, and things like language should not be used as an excuse for not trying," Abbey explains. "Believe it's possible, because it is possible."

"Finally, one of our own"

With a background in student politics in her native Ghana, Adwoa Brewu was no stranger to the political arena when she ran for election to Espoo city council on the Christian Democrats’ ticket in 2017.

Brewu tells Yle News that,following a nudge from a Christian Democrat, she was inspired to become a candidate after reading the results of a PISA report on immigrant children in the Finnish education system, she felt her "time had come" to get involved in issues that affected her own family.

"Children of immigrant background were said to be lagging behind their Finnish counterparts by two academic years, and I started to wonder what was wrong and what we can do about it," Brewu explains. "I decided I had to make something happen within the municipality to support these children academically."

Despite being "absolutely terrified" at the prospect of running for office, Brewu recalls how the support she received from her friends and local community when she first announced her candidacy gave her confidence for her campaign.

"People were very enthusiastic, with comments like 'finally, one of our own is going to stand for us'," Brewu recalls. "My Finnish colleagues also expressed excitement that I had decided to get involved, and not just be passive about the environment I was in."

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Adwoa Brewu stood as a candidate for the Christian Democrats in 2017. Image: Kristillisdemokraatit

Once campaigning began, Brewu says she very quickly decided that she needed to overcome her "fear of discrimination" if she was going to meet and ultimately influence as many voters as possible, and believes this is a key consideration for any foreign national looking to run in local elections in Finland.

"You need to have a tough mind, and resilience is very important," Brewu says. "Once you put yourself out there you must be ready to hear what the public has to say about you. It can be things that destroy you, but it can also be things that you can learn from."

Tallying just shy of 100 votes, Brewu missed out on a seat on the city council, but says that for a first-time candidate, facing a "number of constraints", she is "very satisfied" with her performance and is considering running again in 2021.

"How is this a healthy democracy?"

In the 2017 municipal elections, Pedro Aibéo ran for Helsinki city council as an independent candidate on the Left Alliance list. His campaign agenda was based on the promotion of direct democracy, in which ordinary people decide on council policies instead of only elected individuals, and a demand that "all governmental meetings and decisions" be translated into English.

"We have a growing 15-percent population in Helsinki who speak neither of the official languages [Finnish and Swedish], yet they can vote and even be candidates, such as me," Aibéo tells Yle News. "How is this a healthy democracy if we have ill-informed voters?"

Aibéo recalls his policy proposals were popular with the many voters he spoke to on the campaign trail, but he received "plenty of harsh criticism for not speaking Finnish or Swedish" by other candidates from across the political spectrum.

He sees this as being indicative of wider trends within Finnish society which are hampering efforts and progress towards internationalisation.

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Pedro Aibéo. Image: Petteri Bülow / Yle

"Finns might look very open and international on the frontend but it's the opposite on the backend," Aibéo says. "They are extremely protective of their own ways and keep the key positions in society mostly to themselves. It is normal in any society but it might be perceived to be stronger here."

At the ballot box, Aibéo received 82 votes, a result he says he is "very happy with as I never expected to get that many" and he is hoping to build on that support if he runs in 2021. However, he believes that language will again be a major obstacle, if he does choose to stand again.

"It's a sad story when ideas and work are blocked by translation," Aibéo says. "Many of us, me included, have much to offer to this country if given the chance."

Feeling "even more foreign"

Language was also a core issue for the campaign of Paul Brennan, who ran as a National Coalition Party candidate for Helsinki city council in 2012 with the slogan, "Vote for the most foreign candidate".

Brennan explains that, as he is not a Finnish speaker, he felt "even more foreign" than any other candidate standing for election, and wanted to use his campaign to highlight the need for better social cohesion between Finnish citizens and non-citizen residents -- especially those who felt "excluded".

Language is a big part of this, Brennan says.

"I was seeing so much wasted energy, resources, communications towards making life better for Finnish people and for foreign people, because it was missing all the insights that foreigners could bring," he recalls. "It was about the need for sensible conversations. Not just about what Finland can do better, but about what foreigners can do better too."

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Paul Brennan. Image: Petteri Bülow / Yle

Despite entering his name in the knowledge that he had "little to no chance" of getting elected, Brennan describes the experience of running a campaign, meeting voters and widening his personal and professional network as "fantastic".

"The best thing for me though was realising that I actually could have done it [got elected to the council]," Brennan says.

His candidacy received a significant publicity boost when his campaign video caught the attention (siirryt toiseen palveluun) of tabloid Ilta-Sanomat, but it didn’t transfer to the ballot box as he received just short of 100 votes on polling day.

"I’m happy to make fun of myself if it is for a good cause, or to get the message across, which it would have done if the video had been linked to my manifesto," he adds.

Foreigners "can feel frustrated"

Natalia Rincon was also concerned about the integration of foreigners in Finland when she decided to run for election to Tampere city council in 2017, having been involved with the Green Party since moving to Finland from her native Mexico in 2012.

The lack of participation in politics by people who move here as adults was "very noticeable", Rincon says, citing as an example the consistently low turnout of non-citizen resident voters in municipal elections, despite their eligibility to vote.

"As a foreigner one can feel frustrated because you might not feel part of the society or that you belong," Rincon says. "How can one get involved, and how can one even become interested, in something that feels so far away?"

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Natalia Rincon. Image: Petteri Bülow / Yle

Rincon wanted to show these marginalised groups that being more aware of, and even involved in, local politics and decision-making was vitally important as it affected their lives too.

"How municipalities invest in certain things, how they make decisions that affect residents’ lives," Rincon says. "These are very important topics because they define the city that we live in, and our family’s future."

Rincon’s message resonated with electors, and she received 345 votes. The biggest vote-getter in the Tampere election was Finland’s current Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

Although that was not quite enough to gain Rincon a seat on the council, she later became a councillor in September 2019 when she replaced her Green Party colleague Anna-Kaisa Heinämäki.