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People of foreign background less likely vote in Finnish elections

According to a Justice Ministry report, parties play a key role in the number of candidates of foreign background.

Voter turnout among immigrants seems to increase with the acquisition of Finnish citizenship. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

People with foreign backgrounds are under-represented in Finnish politics—including voting, standing as candidates and serving as elected officials, according to a report published by the Ministry of Justice on Wednesday.

The largest representation of people with a foreign background is in municipal and regional elections, as immigrants have the widest right to stand as a candidate and vote. However, in national elections, only Finnish citizens can vote and run. Additionally, the Finnish president must be a natural-born citizen.

The report clarified what it calls "the democratic deficit" in Finland—referring to lower participation in democratic institutions by people with foreign backgrounds.

According to the study, those who speak foreign languages as their first language have not voted in elections as frequently as those who speak Finnish and Swedish as their first language.

There were substantial differences between language groups. In the 2021 municipal elections, those whose native language was German, Arabic or Turkish voted the most. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, the turnout of German speakers was even higher than that of Finnish speakers.

The voter turnout of immigrants seemed to increase after acquiring Finnish citizenship, according to the report.

Voter turnout was influenced by the democracy of the country of origin and previous experiences of political culture. The lack of candidates from similar backgrounds could also explain the lower turnout of people with a foreign background.

By far the most common reason for not voting was a lack of information, according to the study.

More foreign-language candidates needed

Foreign language speakers were underrepresented among candidates and those elected.

In the municipal elections of 2021, there were candidates who spoke Turkish, French, German, Somali, English, and Spanish as their first language.

"If parties and candidate recruiters lack contact with immigrants and multilingual Finns, this is likely to be reflected in candidate recruitment. The challenge may be the ability of parties to identify potential candidates," the report said.

Candidates with a foreign background may also be left without support from within the party. One of the factors holding back candidacy is also the fact that immigrants and multilinguals also fear open racism. For instance, earlier this year, Finland's first Somali-born MP was told by Parliament's security attachment to avoid taking public transportation for security reasons.

Nearly half a million foreign language speakers in Finland

The ministry working group that drafted the report made a list of ways to increase the participation of people of foreign background in the elections.

"The recommendations given in the report concern, for example, increasing multilingual and easy-to-understand communications, recognising the role of organisations of immigrants and multilingual Finns, and equality-promoting official activities," the report stated.

The report pointed out that outright racism and a hostile society erode trust and can hinder participation.

Immigrant and multilingual Finns are a significant group in Finland, as according to the population register, 460,000 people—or 8 percent of the total population—spoke a first language other than Finnish, Swedish or Sámi at the end of 2021.

The largest language groups are Russian, Estonian, Arabic, English and Somali.

According to the report, research has repeatedly found that the participation of persons belonging to minority groups in democracies promotes good population relations. However, being excluded can deepen segregation between groups of people.