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Systemic Quirks and Sámi Self-Determination: Elections Inside the Arctic Circle

The Sámi people, one of the only indigenous people in the European Union, are electing the Sámi Parliament of Finland throughout September. Every fourth year 21 representatives are elected to oversee the cultural matters of the Sámi people in Finland, including language, heritage and their status as indigenous people. The election in question has electorally intriguing features, which we’ll dive into. On top of the systemic functions, the Sámi community has been at odds with the Finnish state and judicial system when it comes to international justice, organisation of elections and the Sámi Parliament. What is it all about? Let’s find out.

The Sámi people, numbering between 80,000-100,000, inhabit the area called Sápmi, pictured below. It spans four nations: Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia, the first two of which are members of the European Union. The Sámi people have parliaments to oversee their matters with a varying degree of independence in Norway, Sweden and Finland, while in Russia such an institution is currently being established. Whereas each Sámi parliament is under the jurisdiction of their respective national parliament and has to follow their decisions, we’ll be concentrating mainly on the Finnish Sámi Parliament today in light of the ongoing elections.

The electoral system in place to elect the 21 representatives to the Sámi Parliament in Finland is rather uncommon, especially in Nordic Europe. The election itself with its 6,000 eligible voters out of the 10,000 Sámis living in Finland is a rather straightforward vote, where all 21 representatives are elected by a direct vote from a single constituency encompassing the entirety of Finland, provided that the four traditional Sámi districts in Northern Finland are all represented sufficiently.

The distinguishing feature is that the candidates for elections are not in any way organised into political parties. Each candidate for the Finnish Sámi Parliament runs as an independent candidate with no political group affiliations. This brings up a rather distinct campaign phase where traditionally the most crucial role is played by the immediate close family, relatives and community of the candidates—mostly as a result of the diaspora and dispersed nature of the Sámi people. Traditional canvassing is not much of an option due to sparse voter population in south and vast distances in the north.

Such a non-partisan system was deliberately chosen so not to bring party politics into the Sámi Parliament of Finland. Similar systems of non-partisan politics exist elsewhere in rural Europe but are uncommon in Nordic countries. We here at Europe Elects will therefore not be offering you polls about these elections—there aren’t even any—as they would reveal nothing for the outsider.

Hence, the main story of these elections isn’t really who is going to be elected; we cannot make convenient characterisations or generalisations about the candidates based on their party affiliations. On top of that, the decisions made by the Sámi Parliament of Finland can be bypassed and deprived funding by the Finnish Parliament, rendering discussion about the possible policy ramifications rather redundant.

Instead, the spotlight lies on more fundamental questions: are the Sámi being recognised as an indigenous people to the extent that their rights are being respected?  Are the Sámi being given the right to exist as people in the first place?

Photo: Anne Marie Hætta (CC BY 2.0)

The Finnish Sámi Parliament has been at odds with the Finnish justice system during the last decade regarding the definitions of those eligible to vote in Sámi elections. The still ongoing dispute came to a head earlier this decade, when the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland decreed to include a sizeable group of fresh voters to the electoral rolls of eligible voters.

What makes such a routine move controversial is that those accepted to the electoral rolls by court were not recognised as Sámi by the Sámi Parliament. As a result, 97 people eligible to vote in the Sámi Parliament elections are recognised as Sámi by the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland but not by the Sámi Parliament and, consequently, much of the Sámi people. The decision by the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland to accept the applicants against the wishes of the Sámi Parliament of Finland was recently criticised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

In short, the criteria needed to be fulfilled in order to be accepted to the Sámi electoral voter rolls revolve around speaking Sámi language as a first language, being registered as a Sámi in the land register or being a descendant of someone who met either of these criteria. The ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland to accept those the Sámi Parliament of Finland considers non-Sámi to the voter rolls, however, really doesn’t have a meaningful role in the campaign phase leading up to the election. There is nothing that the Sámi Parliament of Finland can do to it, except to voice concerns and disapprovals.

The Sámi Parliament of Finland tried to postpone the 2019 elections in order to sort out these disagreements, but such postponement was not ultimately possible in the wake of the Finnish Parliament elections in April 2019 and the loss of legislative time associated with it. 

For some, the whole debacle presents itself as just another continuation of suppressing and denying the cultural heritage, language and beliefs of the Sámi people. For centuries, each country with a Sámi population yearned to assimilate and homogenise the Sámi living within their boundaries. This includes, among other things, denying the right to receive teaching and official governmental services with their own language and assimilating Sámi children by force in state-run boarding schools away from their parents.

Photo: Mats Andersson (CC BY 2.0)

In spite of the most blatant forced assimilation having ended in the late 20th century, three of the four countries with Sámi population—Finland, Sweden and Russia—have not ratified International Labour Organisation Convention 169, better known as the major binding international convention concerning indigenous peoples and their rights. Norway ratified the convention in 1990 after receiving broad international criticism regarding their policies of assimilation towards the Sámi people. Finland, Sweden and Russia are still yet to ratify the convention, albeit each recognising the Sámi people as indigenous and giving them some rights.

The Sámi people of Finland are electing the Finnish Sámi Parliament in September, starting from the 2nd and ending on the 30th due to vast distances and the scattered nature of the Sámi people. The election with a structurally rare electoral system of no political affiliations takes place amidst the ongoing debate and strife spotlighting the rights of the Sámi people as a nation. Election results are expected right at the start of October, but the wider discussion regarding the rights of the Sámi people won’t be going away.