It’s election day in Sweden. Elections for the parliament (Riksdag), county councils and municipal councils happen every four years, so it’s an important day in shaping the near future of Swedish society. As someone with foreign citizenship who has lived in Sweden more than 3 years, I am eligible to vote in the county and municipal elections, but not for the Riksdag. In fact, the only people who can vote in the Riksdag elections are Swedish citizens over the age of 18. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived in Sweden–if you’re not a citizen, you have no say in the national government. Interestingly, this is very different from who is eligible to decide on whether or not Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom in their vote next week. In that election, anyone who is living in Scotland and is a citizen of Britain (which includes Scotland), a Commonwealth country (like Canada or Australia), or an EU country is eligible to vote. This is a much broader base of people who are considered eligible to have a say in the future of a country.
Voting eligibility is an interesting case of governmental authorities deciding about the ‘belongingness’ of people. It’s not all that different at its core than what happens with nonhumans. Governments, often through their environmental agencies and commissioned scientific reports, draw lines about which nonhumans are ‘native’ and which are not. Policies are made based on the history of a species–when it arrived within a given geographical area and/or when it disappeared. In essence, animals and plants are given ‘citizenship’ or ‘naturalisation’ status through these decisions.
A perfect example of this is the group of five muskoxen who crossed the border from Norway into Sweden in September 1971, which led to a debate about their status. They were immediately welcomed by the tourist industry. When a national postage stamp series titled ‘Sweden’s Mountains’ was issued in March 1984, the three images chosen were the angelica flowering plant, the lemming, and the muskox. The text printed in both Swedish and English with the first day issue shows the rapid integration of muskox:
In 1971 the musk-ox (Ovibos moschatus) came back to the Swedish fauna. The occasion can be seen as a return to the fold, and today there are some 30 animals in the province Härjedalen.
When the muskox population appeared to be in trouble in the 1980s because of inbreeding, the Green Party argued that because paleoarcheological finds of muskox had been made in Sweden,
the species belongs truly to Sweden’s original inhabitants.…We have no right to abandon the muskox.
Adolf Hoel had expressed similar opinions about the muskox, arguing in several of his publications that part of the reason for bringing the animals to Svalbard and Dovre was because they had lived in Norway at the end of the Ice Age. With their reintroduction, ‘muskox are again a component of the Norwegian fauna’, according to Hoel.
The official Parliamentary response to the Green’s motion reveals that everyone was not in agreement about the muskox’s ‘naturalization’. The Parliamentary statement ‘Swedish Environmental Politics’ issued in 1991 addressed the motion, claiming that while the animals had value in the tourism sector,
muskoxen have been extinct for such a long time in Scandinavia that they can no longer be seen as a part of our natural fauna.
A parliamentary motion made in 2000 as well as a draft Threatened Species Action Plan for the muskox were all denied. This debate has created a somewhat contradictory status for the animal. The species is not eligible for listing as an endangered species in Sweden because it is classified as ‘introduced’ in the Red List, yet there is a regional plan that calls for its conservation. Its status is in many ways the same as mine in Swedish elections: it gets included in local and regional affairs, but not in national ones.
This is very different than how the beaver was treated when it came back to Sweden after an absence of 50 years. Sponsors (or godfathers) were named for the reintroduced beavers and local contacts sent in frequent ‘beaver reports’. When the Västerbottens läns jaktvårdsforening reintroduced beavers in 1924 in northern Sweden, the relationship between the hunters and beavers is described as co-citizenship. One photograph shows a member of the reintroduction group with a beaver captioned as: State forester Johansson cheering up one of his new ‘countrymen’. The beaver belonged in Sweden.
The racoon dog is on the opposite side of the spectrum of belonging, with concerted efforts to keep it out of Sweden. The origin of the species in Asia, rather than where the individual animals alive right now have been born, makes it foreign. As animals shift their ranges, whether because of climate change or human introduction, we have to ask ourselves: At what point should an animal be ‘naturalised’? Are the standards for ‘native’ based on species history really good ones? If we applied the standard that is applied to many animal species to voters, only those with family in Sweden before 1800 would be able to vote.
Animals don’t get a vote, but thinking about how they are framed as belonging or not might let us think a little harder about how people are also framed as belonging or not. An individual’s history–where he/she was born, where he/she lives, how long he/she has lived in a particular place–all factor into whether or not the individual is allowed to vote. Are those the best standards to say if an individual should have a say in government? At what point do people belong to a community?