Sámi Parliament elections going ahead, despite legal issues

File picture showing meeting of the Sámi Parliament / Credit: Samediggi

Voting is set to begin next week to elect 21 members of the Sámi Parliament. But an ongoing legal battle of who is eligible to vote overshadows the process.

The Sámi Parliament in Inari believes it should have the final say on who is considered Sámi, and therefore allowed to cast a ballot, and who is not.

The Finnish State has until now allowed the Supreme Administrative Court to make that judgement, a move that’s been criticised by the United Nations.

So with postal voting beginning on 2nd September, some people will be allowed to vote who the Finnish State says are Sámi, but who the Sámi Parliament and many Sámi people don’t consider to be Sámi, and don’t think should be allowed to vote.

The outgoing President of the Sámi Parliament Tiina Sanila-Aiko says she’s “not happy” with the situation, but efforts to delay the voting until the legal issues can be resolved have proved fruitless.

In this June 2016 picture, Sámi Parliament President Tiina Sanila-Aikio takes a selfie / Credit: @TiinaSaAi Twitter

“We tried to get the elections postponed so that this situation would have been resolved and clear for all of us. Both for Sámis and the State, and also the court system. Now we are forced to go to the election and I hope we are going to do fine, but that’s not so clear at the moment.” she tells News Now Finland.

The history of who is allowed on the Sámi Parliament electoral role is a complex and emotive issue.

The current Sámi Act defines a Sámi person as someone who has at least one parent or grandparent who learned Sámi as a first language; if they are the descendent of someone who has been on the land, tax or population register as a mountain, forest or fishing Lapp; or if at least one parent could have been registered on the Sámi electoral roll.

The Act also says that the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court is still the final arbiter on this – something the United Nations, and many in the Sámi community, say is wrong and fundamentally at odds with the right of indigenous people to self determination.

The Government does plan to continue with reform of the Sámi Act, which was effectively shelved last year after the Inari Parliament voted against it, but officials say there’s hasn’t been an opportunity yet to move Finland in line with the UN ruling, in an already-busy political year.

“For me as a lawyer the thing that is pretty simple is that this is a process based directly on legislation, and in order to change that we would have to change the law and go through parliament which is not even in session [at the moment]” says Johanna Suurpää from the Ministry of Justice.

“The timing is unfortunate. The UN committee decision came after a very long wait, unfortunately rather late, there was an election and a new government came after a while, and nothing could be done in the time” she explains.

And so the election goes on, but under a cloud.

“There’s plenty of disinformation and clear attacks towards the Sámi Parliament and I’m afraid that this might influence people not to vote or to stay out of the whole process. And of course in this situation we would need every Sámi to vote to give their opinion” says Tiina Sanila-Aikio.

File picture of Sámi flag / Credit: iStock

How the voting takes place 

Voting opens on 2nd September and closes on 29th September. During that time anyone on the Sámi electoral roll can mail in their postal ballots, or drop it in person at the Sámi Parliament in Inari. There are no traditional polling stations at town halls or schools.

The Sámi Parliament has 21 members and some of the seats are reserved – three members of the parliament are guaranteed a place from traditional homeland municipalities in Inari, Utsjoki, Enontekiö and Sodankylä.

The remaining nine seats are given to the candidates who poll the highest number of votes, no matter which municipality they live in – inside or outside the traditional Sámi homeland areas in Lapland.

There’s no party political affiliations in the Sámi Parliament, even if a candidate’s values may be aligned with a Finnish political party, and each candidate stands on their own individual platform.

File picture of Janne Hirvasvuopio / Credit: Candidate’s FB

First time candidate

A first time candidate standing in this year’s election is Janne Hirvasvuopio who studies politics at the University of Helsinki.

He says that while many Sámi voters and politicians are deeply interested in mainstream issues like land use, fishing, voting rights, resource exploitation or the proposed Arctic railway, he wants to focus on a more personal issue.

“I am a second generation Sámi who has lost the language. My father didn’t speak Sámi at all due to assimilation policies and the traumas that happened to my grandmother, and I think there is a threshold for one to be part of Sámi politics if you have lost the language” Hirvasvuopio explains.

“So I hope to become someone who can advocate for those who have lost their language, and who want to reclaim it, because I know how it feels for someone to be like a ‘second degree Sámi'” the 29-year old says.

Hirvasvuopio says that because the number of Sámi who vote in the elections is so small, there’s no clear data about what drives them to the polls, or what issues are electorally most significant.

“The problem with Sámi politics is that it’s quite consensual. There are differences of opinion and that’s important to have but in many cases basic things like language issues, culture funding, we’re fighting the same fight together, year after year” he tells News Now Finland.

However some issues are perennial, and stretch back to the days even before there was a Sámi Parliament. The issue of building a railway linking the Arctic Sea, through important reindeer herding areas, has caused provoked a great deal of controversy in the last year.

But it’s nothing new.

“The vast majority of people I know would be against the Arctic railway. If you look at documents from 100 years ago [about building a railway in the Arctic] the same arguments were there”, dismissing the concerns of Sámi people says Janne Hirvasvuopio.

“‘Who cares about fish soup and the lichen grounds of the Lappish people’?”

“Jokingly I said to one of my Sámi friends this is a generational thing. Every generation of Sámi has to fight against the Arctic railway.”

You might also be interested in: