Finland's municipal politics exert huge influence over everyday life, but most foreigners don't vote — even though the vast majority are eligible.
Ran Goren, an Israeli Ph.D. student in Turku, found the situation perplexing in 2017.
"In the last round of local elections, I found that most internationals just didn't know much about Finnish politics or elections," Goren said.
Anyone over 18 who has a permanent address in Finland for at least two years has the right to vote in local elections. EU and EEA citizens can vote after 51 days. Voter turnout among eligible international residents in Finland has never been more than 20 percent in the past twenty years, according to University of Helsinki researchers Hanna Wass and Marjukka Weide, who studied the 2012 municipal elections.
Goren knew there was a need for more information, so he founded a Facebook group for internationals to try and share political material in English. The group, "Turku municipal elections 2021" is independent and he has asked all local parties to participate, with a mixed response. Candidates and representatives from the Left Alliance, Social Democrats, Swedish People’s and Green parties have joined the group.
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The basic goal is for politicians to share their manifestos for Turku in English and to allow members to ask further questions. Some candidates have already fielded questions in the group about city projects like the Toriparkki and Impivaara Swimming Hall -- which have had budget overruns and delays -- and have invited members to party kiosks in the city center.
Toriparkki is a 620 space parking lot being built under Turku's Kauppatori. The first phase, opening the market area back up, is set to be complete next year.
He said he wasn’t able to find similar groups for other Finnish cities, but the community soon grew to around 150 members. Most were from Turku but there are also members from Jyväskylä, Tampere and Espoo.
One common misconception among the group members was that you had to be a Finnish citizen to vote in any election.
Diana Reyes is from Mexico and has lived in Kotka for the past five years. Speaking to Yle via email, she said she didn’t remember seeing any information in English in previous local elections.
"I don’t remember if they told us about [voting] in my integration class or at the TE-toimisto, but I plan to vote now that I know I am eligible. Voting is an instrument of change, so it’s our duty to use it," Reyes said.
Language barrier an obstacle
Some international residents cited a lack of fluency in Finnish or Swedish as the main issue when trying to follow local politics.
Jason Finch is from the UK. He has lived in Turku for 15 years and speaks some Swedish but says it has always been hard for him to find specifics about a party’s manifesto.
"I’ve always gotten a notice that I was eligible to vote but I usually picked my candidates by looking at their Wikipedia page and in one instance, I knew the politician," Finch said.
"I think it's important to help people see what the different parties are specifically proposing for Turku. This campaigning to help people who don’t speak Finnish or Swedish use their rights is worthwhile. We [Turku] are a college town so there are a lot of us," he added.
Growing up in Israel, Goren said it was standard to have political information available in English.
"We have so many Jewish people who move here from different countries, so it was easy to get the information you needed even if you don’t speak Hebrew," Goren noted.
Nick Walters has lived in Finland for six years and runs a Facebook group for British people in Finland. He said he attends party stands in the Market Square but his most reliable source has been Yle’s vaalikone, or Election Compass, which lets you answer a series of questions to match your political interests with the most similar politician. During the municipal elections it will be available in Finnish, Swedish, English and Russian.
Goren said he considered a personal foray into Finnish politics as a candidate but hit a roadblock with limited Finnish language skills.
"I saw that it was very inaccessible if you are not a fluent Finnish speaker. So I decided I’d do something small [with the Facebook group] and see if it helps," Goren said.
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Not much info on international voters
Most research on voting from abroad has focused on voting patterns of citizens living outside of their home country.
"Research on immigrants voting [in Finland] is a relatively new field, only about 10 years old," said Johanna Peltoniemi, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki.
She said she also thinks the language barrier is an issue when getting international residents to vote.
"When elections are approaching, I always ask my international students if they know if they have the right to vote. Almost everyone says 'no' until I tell them the requirements. Then they learn almost all are actually eligible," Peltoniemi said.
She said some Finns living abroad and foreign residents in Finland are reluctant to vote as they think they're ignorant of the issues, but they actually know more than they realise.
And while there aren’t studies on the specific topic, Peltonimemi said in her opinion, easier access to technology like social media, should help increase access for international voters.
International residents with a Finnish spouse or children born in Finland and those born in democratic countries were more likely to vote, according to Wass and Weide’s 2012 research.
Yle contacted The Election Unit of the Ministry of Justice about their outreach efforts to international residents.
"Closer to an election, we usually issue a press release in English and Finnish about where and how to vote, but our main duty is to manage the electoral process itself," said senior specialist Laura Nurminen.
Outreach during campaigns more common
Yle contacted all political parties asking if their party manifestos and websites would be available in English and what, if any, campaigning they had planned specific to international residents.
The Social Democratic, Christian Democratic, Centre and National Coalition parties said they would make their manifestos available in English as well as their websites. As for outreach, all said they were in the preliminary stages of planning those efforts.
According to Statistics Finland, there are 339,985 foreign residents living in Finland, who were born abroad and do not have Finnish or Swedish as their first language.
Are you eligible to vote? Have you been talking to your friends about the different parties and politicians? Well, the next round of local elections takes place 18 April 2021. All eligible voters should get a letter about a month before the election, with their voting location and information explaining the process.