Foreign-born people under-represented in Swedish politics

Foreign-born people under-represented in Swedish politics
The town hall in Västerås. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
Foreign-born people in Sweden face a glass ceiling in local politics and are less likely to reach high-level positions even after decades in the country, new research shows.

A higher number of Swedes born abroad are choosing to get involved in local politics, but they find it tougher to reach the top than native Swedes, according to the study from the Swedish Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University.

“We had expected representation of foreign-born people to be higher in communities where a higher proportion of the population was foreign-born, but that's not what we found,” Johanna Rickne, a political scientist at Stockholm University, told The Local.

“That shows a problem; there are very very few foreign-born people in the top positions, regardless of how many there are in the community, and they should be represented.”

Rickne added that while it was relatively easy for people with a foreign background to enter politics at a lower level, reaching an elected office with more influence, such as district committee chair or mayor, was much more difficult than for native Swedes.

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The research was based on municipal election data between 1991 and 2014 and was possible because of Sweden's personal number system, which means all residents are given an identity number linked to their region of birth.

There was a notable difference in political opportunities depending on immigrants' home countries. Those originally from the Middle East, Africa, Latin America or Asia were less likely to reach higher levels in Swedish politics than immigrants from the Nordics, the EU, or North America.

This lower level of representation did not appear to be linked to the candidates' age, gender, level of education, or political experience. 

One factor which did have an impact however was the length of time spent in Sweden, with those who had lived in the country for over 20 years more likely to reach a higher level in politics. However, they were still under-represented in high-level positions.

Second-generation immigrants, a term used to refer to those born in Sweden to one or both foreign-born parents, were more easily able to advance in Swedish politics, something Rickne said was “a positive result, showing relatively successful integration”. But Swedes in this group were still less likely to reach the highest level than Swedes from families in which both parents were native Swedes.

Rickne believes Sweden's political parties should be doing more to tackle this, and suggested a review of the networks and other processes within the parties which help people rise through the ranks.

“There are many reasons it's a problem; from the point of view of integration, just as we want people to participate fully in the labour market and develop as much as possible, the same goes for politics. It's also a human right!” she said.

“Solving the issues which Sweden is facing requires people of many different backgrounds who will bring their own experience and offer different solution, and having better representation of the population helps instil confidence in the democratic system,” she explained.

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