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What’s at stake in Sweden’s Sami elections?

The results of Sweden's Sami parliamentary elections are expected next week and land rights of the indigenous people are just one of the key issues in question.

What's at stake in Sweden's Sami elections?
The Sami flag; the results of the Sami Parliament elections are expected next week. Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB scanpix / TT

On Sunday, many of the country’s Sami cast their votes in the Sami Parliament or Sámediggi (Sametinget in Swedish). The 9,220 Sami people included in the voting list could go to one of the 24 polling stations located around the country, everywhere between Gothenburg in the south to Karesuando in the far north.

The results are expected to be announced on May 25th.

“You feel like a Sami, that identity is strengthened when you step into the polling station,” Lars-Einar Hästner, who cast his vote at the newly established polling station in the Gothenburg, told local radio P4 Göteborg.

Who gets a vote?

The Sami are an indigenous people who inhabit Sápmi, an area comprising (northern) parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. There are an estimated 100,000 Sami people across those countries,  between 20,000 to 35,000 of them living in Sweden.

Blue areas of the map are the area known as Sápmi. Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikicommons 

In order to register, voters needed to be aged over 18, consider themselves Sami, and have to speak or have spoken the Sami language. Voters can also register if their parents or grandparents speak or spoke Sami at home, or if they have a parent included in the voting list.

Of those on the voting register, approximately 45 per cent live in Norrbotten, 22 percent in Västerbotten, eight percent in Stockholm County and six percent in Jämtland County. The others are spread across the rest of the country. 

The turnout this year was good, with 2,135 people voting at their local polling station, compared to 1,964 in the last election in 2017.

Polling stations had to adapt to Covid-19, keeping entrances and exits separate to reduce crowding and supplying voters with face masks, hand sanitiser and plastic gloves. Fika, which is traditionally offered to those who come to cast their vote, had to be cancelled.

Indigenous rights

In 1977, the Swedish parliament first recognised the Sami as an indigenous people in Sweden.

Still, Sweden has faced international criticism for falling short when it comes to safeguarding the rights of the Sami people. The UN have raised the issue several times, recommending that Sweden increase efforts to strengthen support for the Sami language, improve protection for Sami land rights, and afford greater influence for the Sami people in decision-making processes that directly affect them.

Several countries, including Norway and Denmark, have also recommended that Sweden ratify the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention. The 1989 convention emphasises land rights for indigenous peoples and has been ratified by almost all countries with indigenous peoples, but not by Sweden.

Sami Parliament in 2004. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

The Sami Parliament

The Sámediggi in Sweden was inaugurated in 1993,and has its main office in Kiruna, with local offices in Jokkmokk, Tärnaby and Östersund. The 31 members of the Sami Parliament Plenary Assembly are appointed through general elections every fourth year.

As a relatively small minority the Sami, have difficulty gaining representation in Sweden’s regular democratic institutions both at a national and local level. There is no Sami representation in the Swedish parliament and only a handful of Sami are local politicians in Swedish municipalities.

The Sami Parliament is, according to its website, “a blend of a popularly elected parliament and a state administrative agency with limited and legally regulated tasks”, meaning that it receives its mandate from the Swedish government rather than being able to overrule decisions by the parliament or municipal councils for example. 

But the Sami Parliament can still pursue political issues and contribute to changes at the national level.

Its primary task is “to monitor issues concerning the Sami culture in Sweden.”

This includes managing the distribution of state grants and funds from the Sami Foundation (Samefonden) for Sami culture and Sami organizations, the administration for reindeer husbandry, the appointment of the board for the Sami school (Sameskolan) and defining the objectives for the preservation of the Sami language(s).

The Sami Parliament in 2001. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

Language and land on the agenda

Throughout primary school, 19-year-old Elin Nejne had to fight to learn Sami, she told the TT newswire. The language issue is one of the most important reasons why she was voting in last weekend’s Sami parliamentary elections. “Many of us are committed to taking back our language”, she said. “To be able to go to the polls feels great.”

“My grandfather is my Sami connection and he belongs to the generation that was deprived of the language. The language requirement [to vote] is difficult for many in my generation who have not spoken Sami at home. I think that should be reformulated.

“When I was younger, I did not even realise that the Sami Parliament existed. Now it feels like it is becoming more and more visible, that everyone can be reached by information, which makes more people feel that it is important to apply to vote,” she said.

But the crucial question dividing the parties into two blocks is whether all Sami should have the right to use the land and water in their home areas.

The political dividing line is above all between those who believe that the Sami villages (samebyar) should control hunting, fishing and reindeer husbandry, and those who believe that all Sami should have the right to take part in hunting and fishing, with reduced influence for the Sami villages. These are not villages in the traditional sense, but financial and administrative unions representing Sami people in different regions.

A total of eight parties were registered for the 2021 election. According to the final debate organised by Sami Radio, whether people who are part of Sami villages should have the exclusive rights to fishing and hunting, just two out of the eight parties said yes. 

In the last election, the Hunting and Fishing Sami party (which is in favour of extended hunting and fishing rights) received the most votes, but failed to form a majority in the Sami Parliament.

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Politics in Sweden: Six things we learned from a new interview with the migration minister

The Local's editor has listened to a new interview with the Swedish migration minister, the Social Democrats now know what went wrong in the last election, and the key interest rate decision you need to keep an eye on this week. That and much more in this week's Politics in Sweden column.

Politics in Sweden: Six things we learned from a new interview with the migration minister

Swedish Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard gave a long interview to public radio broadcaster Sveriges Radio Ekot’s Saturday interview show.

She spoke among other things about the many planned migration law changes proposed in the Tidö Agreement, the deal that allowed the Moderates and Christian Democrats to form a right-wing government with the controversial support of the far-right Sweden Democrats.

Here’s a roundup of some of the things that emerged from the interview (or didn’t emerge – there were several issues that she didn’t want to go into specifics on):

1. Asked by interviewer Johar Bendjelloul whether she felt she had been appointed to carry out the far-right Sweden Democrats’ migration policy, she said no, her job is to carry out what “the government and its collaboration parties, including the Sweden Democrats, have agreed”.

But she also conceded that the Sweden Democrats’ influence on the policies was significant.

2. The government and the Sweden Democrats are working on launching an inquiry that will look into whether or not to make it mandatory for Swedish authorities in general to report to the police and Migration Agency when they encounter someone in Sweden without the proper permits.

This has raised concern among for example teachers and hospital workers that they will have to act as informants and be unable to protect their students and patients. People without permits still have the right to urgent healthcare or, in the case of children, school.

Malmer Stenergard, when pressed on the issue, said that one-off exceptions could be made on compassionate grounds, for example in the case of healthcare staff. However, she said such exceptions would have to be investigated and that she preferred to await the inquiry before commenting on the specific details.

3. The government and the Sweden Democrats want to phase out the institution of permanent residence permits, but the bid that has caused the greatest concern would abolish some permanent permits that have already been handed out, instead replacing them with temporary permits.

But the move applies only to people who hold asylum-related permits, Malmer Stenergard reiterated. When pushed, she guaranteed several times that foreign residents who already hold permanent residence permits that are not related to asylum would not be affected.

She said she was “troubled” to hear that many people are worried that their permanent residency will be revoked, because “people who are living here in an honest way and are trying to learn Swedish, be self-sufficient and do everything they can to become a part of society, those people shouldn’t have to feel worried. If I’ve communicated in a way that’s caused that worry, I should think about how I communicate in the future.”

As regards to what would happen to people who are affected by the suggested changes to permanent residence permits, she said “First and foremost we will try to find a route for them to become citizens. In other cases we will look at what should happen to those who have permanent [permits], if they should be turned into temporary [permits].”

Again, she did not want to speak about specifics before there’s been an inquiry. Many lawyers have speculated that it will not even be possible to revoke permanent permits, due to Swedish administrative law stating that when a decision from authorities favours the individual, that decision can never be changed.

Malmer Stenergard said it would be up to the soon-to-be-launched inquiry to investigate those possibilities.

4. She said that the government was looking into how it could best help Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, including potentially making it possible for Ukrainian refugees to study Swedish for Immigrants (SFI). Currently, all that’s offered to them is a course called Swedish From Day One, which isn’t offered in all Swedish municipalities.

5. She said that the government was “constantly” evaluating the benefits of the 71 kronor ($6.74 according to today’s exchange rate) per day which are handed to asylum seekers to buy food, clothes and hygiene items. The sum, which is difficult to live on in Sweden today, has remained the same since 1994 – even as costs have risen – and has become the topic of debate following the arrival of thousands of Ukrainian refugees. However, she refused to say anything for sure.

6. Mikael Ribbenvik’s contract as director-general of the Migration Agency is set to expire in June. He has said he would like for it to be extended, but when asked, Malmer Stenergard only said that she was in “close dialogue” with him and that what was being said would remain between them until she is ready to announce a decision.

In other news

The centre-left Social Democrats, who have been in opposition since Sweden’s September election, soar to 36.7 percent in a new poll-of-polls by Kantar Sifo on behalf of public radio broadcaster Sveriges Radio Ekot. They got 30.33 percent in the election.

Together with its left-wing allies the party gets 54.0 percent, almost ten percentage points more than the ruling Moderates and its allies. The Moderates themselves climb to 18.8 percent, overtaking the far-right Sweden Democrats who drop to 18.0 percent.

There’s an easy explanation. Much of the public debate is currently focused on the economy, an area where, the CEO of Kantar Sifo told Ekot, the Social Democrats – and their decades of experience running Swedish finances – usually enjoy strong confidence, even among voters who usually vote conservative. It probably also helps that their current leader is former Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson.

The Social Democrats last week presented their analysis of the party’s performance in the September election. The party increased its votes in the election, but due to the poorer performance of its left-wing allies, it lost the government to the right wing.

The analysis expresses concern over its conclusion that the main reason behind the party’s growth was the popularity of party leader Magdalena Andersson, rather than its policies. It says, however, that it aims to reach the support of at least 40 percent of voters in the future. Here’s a link to the full analysis, in Swedish.

The Centre Party has a new leader. Muharrem Demirok at a party conference last week formally took over from Annie Lööf. You can read more about Demirok in this article by The Local, or by listening to the latest episode of our Sweden in Focus podcast.

And some government proposals that aren’t to do with migration: Business and Energy Minister Ebba Busch on Sunday promised to speed up permit approvals for sea-based wind power, which she in an interview with public broadcaster SVT’s news show Agenda called “one of our most important election pledges”.

What’s next?

Put February 9th in your diary. That’s when the Swedish Central Bank, under the new leadership of Erik Thedéen, will announce its latest decision on the interest rate. The bank is widely expected to raise the interest rate by another 0.5 percentage points. We’ll cover the announcement on The Local when it comes.