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Why should foreign residents vote in Denmark’s local elections?

Local election placards on display in Helsingør. Foreign residents in Denmark have the chance to vote on issues that matter to them on November 16th
Local election placards on display in Helsingør. Foreign residents in Denmark have the chance to vote on issues that matter to them on November 16th Photo: Keld Navntoft/Ritzau Scanpix
If you find Denmark's multiple political parties and consensus system a bit opaque, fear not. The upcoming municipal and regional elections are about things you have opinions on — from healthcare and schools to noise complaints and alleviating traffic. And crucially, many foreign residents are eligible to vote.

Local elections are just around the corner on November 16th. According to Denmark’s interior ministry, 1 in 11 eligible voters in Denmark’s municipal and regional elections are foreign citizens.

Foreign citizens living in Denmark suffer from chronically low voter turnout in the local elections—only 32.1 percent of eligible foreign residents cast their ballots in the 2017 election, an analysis by the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Political Science revealed. And while the cryptically-named Danish political parties can be baffling to newcomers, experts say you don’t really need to understand national level politics to be involved in local elections.

“Most local politics are about very local issues,” Jakob Nielsen, editor-in-chief of Danish political news outlet Altinget, told The Local at an election briefing.

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On Tuesday’s ballot are candidates for municipal and regional councils. Your municipality handles local administration of welfare and social needs—encompassing social services, primary schooling and childcare, infrastructure, transportation, and the somewhat euphemistic “integration” of refugees and immigrants.

The job description for the regions is similar—healthcare, welfare, and social development. They administrate public hospitals and the GP system, orchestrate regional mass transit, and manage initiatives to create economic growth. While there are 98 municipalities, there are only five regions.

Immigration, refugees and foreign workers

While immigration has been a front-and-centre issue in the past several Danish election cycles, “this is probably one of the elections with the least focus on foreigners, immigrants, and people not originally from Denmark,” said Professor Ulrik Kjær of the University of Southern Denmark’s of Political Science department.

A tacit agreement to leave the debate on immigration issues until after the November vote means it hasn’t been discussed publicly in the context of the local elections, Kjær explained. 

Quality of life questions 

Perhaps the most practical reasons for foreign citizens to vote in local elections are the quality of life questions unique to that area. Should Vejle invest in a tunnel under the city centre to ease the traffic gridlock? Should Copenhagen make it harder for bars and restaurants to serve alcohol to ostensibly loud patrons after midnight? 

“Most local politics are about very local issues,” Nielsen said. “Vote as you would in any election for those you trust to do the most for the schools or the elderly, or to steer the local economy in a responsible way.” 

How to learn what the candidates stand for 

Danish broadcasting agency DR offers a helpful “candidate quiz” (in Danish) for each of Denmark’s 98 municipalities — just answer around 30 questions about changes you’d like to see in your area and the quiz will show you the candidates that are most aligned with your opinions. 

Altinget offers a similar quiz for each municipality and a separate version for the regional candidates and issues.  

All of these quizzes are unfortunately only available in Danish, so keep Google Translate or your favourite Dane handy. 

The environment 

While schools, elderly care and other social services regularly top the list of issues voters prioritise, “this local election might be the breakthrough of the environmental question on the political agenda,” Kjær said. 

“They might discuss [environmental policy] in Glasgow, they might discuss it in the national parliament, but they definitely discuss it” — and make meaningful decisions — “in each of the 98 municipal councils,” he added. 


Member comments

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  1. Thank you for the article. I think people with foreign background have a hard time to connect to local politics, because first of all, everything is in Danish, and there are many issues a foreigner will not necessarily understand, I know many who have no clue in what condition the elderly care or school system is because they didn’t grow up in Denmark and could never relate, that is why those political candidate tests are useless and misleading. Second of all, most Danish politicians never approach people of foreign backgrounds and never communicate to them their goals, thus the strong disconnection we have today. I can completely understand that people don’t vote, it is no good to vote for just a candidate that you get from the candidate test, but rather vote for those who you feel considers your wishes. I have been involved in political activism in Denmark and for the 10 years of residence, I only witnessed one small local election debate that was in English and where residents of foreign background could get their moment of questions and answers. If we are not invited to participate by politicians and political parties, then why bother… I would encourage people to vote blank instead, if they feel it is important to vote but they don’t know for whom.

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