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Swedes abroad: Can they really sway an election?

Swedes abroad: Can they really sway an election?

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

Every four years a special group of people get attention for a moment of time – the Swedes living aboard. Everyone wants to know how they will vote in the parliamentary elections. It is often claimed that overseas votes “can determine the election” because they are counted so late. But this year there was also a new phenomenon – the immigrant party Nyans.

Sweden’s embassy in Oslo receives more overseas votes than anywhere else. This year voting took place in the grand Nobel Institute in the same hall where the Nobel Peace Prize is announced every year. 

Outside, embassy staff along with personnel and volunteers from the Swedish Margareta Church offered coffee and newly baked kanelbullar.

Maria Philipson

Swedes voting in Oslo were offered coffee and kanelbullar by Maria Philipson, Consular Officer at the Swedish Embassy.

“This year just over 4 000 people voted, compared to around 5 000 in 2018. The lower number might reflect more postal votes, but we don’t have any figures on these,” says Emmie Isaksson, Communication, Culture and Trade Officer at the embassy.

Altogether some 50 000 Swedes abroad vote in parliamentary elections. The turnout is lower than among Swedes in Sweden, but it is hard to know how low because estimates for the number of Swedes living abroad vary a lot. 

According to the Swedish Tax Agency, around 250 000 Swedish citizens were living abroad in 2009. 

“But there are several problems with this statistic, including the fact that not everyone who emigrates tells Swedish authorities about it,” writes Maria Solved in the report Svenska utlandsröster (Swedish voters abroad), published in 2016 by the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg.  

There is also no requirement to report moving house within one county or between countries, and it is unclear how the deaths of Swedes abroad are reported. According to Eurostat 155 000 people born in Sweden live in the EU/EEA area, and within OECD countries there are 246 000. The organisation Swedes Worldwide, however, estimates some 660 000 Swedish citizens are living abroad.

The official voter turnout for Swedes living abroad was 32.4 % for the previous election in 2018. 

The perception has long been that Swedes abroad are more conservative than voters living in Sweden. 

“The foreign votes are deciding the election!” snorted the then Prime Minister Olof Palme after the 1979 elections, the closest in Swedish history when the two blocks were separated by just 8 404 votes. Votes from abroad would be crucial that year. 

“Ironically, this was the first election after the introduction of simplified rules for postal votes from abroad – rules that Olof Palme had been proposing,” writes Henric Oscarsson in his chapter in the Swedish voters abroad report.


The number of eligible voters living abroad has increased dramatically from 1 000 in 1970 to more than 160 000 today, according to statistics in the Swedish voters abroad report. The number of people actually voting has not increased as much. 

The SOM Institute sent a survey out to 10 000 Swedes abroad, and 27 % answered. It showed the centre-right Moderates were overrepresented in the 2018 elections with 13 percentage points, while the Social Democrats were underrepresented with 16 percentage points.

Since 1979, the Moderates have been targeting the growing group of Swedish voters abroad – a tradition the party has upheld in many elections.

This year they sent a special message where party leader Ulf Kristersson had prerecorded around 1 000 names, which were then edited into a YouTube message sent to 160 000 Swedes abroad. The flag on Kristersson’s coffee cup changes according to which country the recipient lives in.

While Ulf Kristersson sent out his greetings, Mikail Yüksel wandered around in the city of Kulu in Turkey, hanging up election posters for his party Nyans (the Swedish word for nuance) which he founded in 2019. The party says it wants to fight for the rights of minorities, but the main focus is on Muslims.

Mikail Yüksel

Mikail Yüksel electioneering – here in Sweden. Photo Johan Nilsson/TT

The choice of venue for fighting the election might seem strange, but most of the more than 50 000 Swedes who were born in Turkey are from Kulu, which is in the centre of the country, 110 kilometres from Ankara.

“In 1964, four people from Kulu in the Konya region left to work in Sweden. It was the beginning of a love story that is still going strong. Those who moved to Sweden liked the place a lot, and emigration has continued. According to Lulu’s mayor, 50 000 people from Kulu have gone to live in Sweden. 40 000 of them have Swedish citizenship. Many of them live in Stockholm. Nine out of ten Turks living in Sweden are from Kulu, according to the Hürriyet newspaper. 

Many of those who emigrated from Turkey to Sweden have moved back in their old age, so the Swedish general consulate set up a voting station also here. 

In Sweden, the Nyans party has been viewed with great suspicion by the established parties. Their demand for a ban on the burning of the Koran has been seen as trying to limit the freedom of speech.

In an interview with the Expressen newspaper, Minister for Justice Morgan Johansson (S) warned against the party describing it as “a threat to the open society”.

Turkish media, however, are proud of the former Kulu resident who emigrated to Gothenburg in 2001, where he worked as a cleaner, taxi driver and welder before becoming a politician for the Centre Party in 2018 and then founding his own party the year after. 

“Voter turnout among Turks is usually around 15 %, but if the turnout increases to 90 % the future for all Turks in Sweden – and especially those from Kulu – could change,” says Mikail Yüksel in an interview.

Did not reach the goal

When all the votes in this year’s election were counted, the Nyans party had not gained enough support in order to get a mandate, which requires 12 % in one constituency. 

Votes for Nyans were not isolated by the election authorities but came under the group “other parties”, which together took home 1.5 % of votes.

As Swedish Television SVT analysed the Swedish Election Authority’s figures around 11 pm on election night, “other parties” had got more than 10 % of votes in 54 constituencies (out of 6578). In several districts with high immigrant populations, like Rosengård in Malmö, Rinkeby in Stockholm and in Västra Hisingen in Gothenburg, more than 20 % voted for “other parties”.

In future, information about who the Swedes abroad are will probably be more nuanced, and Swedish politics will be discussed even more around the café tables at Olof Palme’s square in Kulu, Turkey.

Swedish election debate in Norwegian

At a bar in Oslo’s Youngstorget, an election vigil was organised with over a hundred participants. Maria Can from the Adresseavisen newspaper moderated a panel consisting of (left to right) Sylo Taraku from the Agenda think-tank, Sweden’s ambassador Cecilia Björner and Claes Arvidsson from the Norwegian-Swedish Association.

New party Nyans had an impact on the election

Partiet Nyans

The Nyans party’s manifesto says:

  • Muslims and Afro-Swedes should be recognised as national minority groups.
  • Housing applications should be anonymised so that the only thing to determine who gets to hire an apartment is how long people have been in the queue.
  • Abolish employer tax for café and restaurant businesses with fewer than 10 employees.
  • Make it easier to set up schools for independent players. “More free schools are needed, not fewer”.
  • Increase the punishment for gun and drug crimes.

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