Emigrant voting rights stir debates in Europe

DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

Most countries allow their expatriates to vote in elections and referendums, often using their embassies and consulates as polling stations. A few countries still require their citizens to actually travel back home to cast their ballots, but this practice is slowly becoming less common. Typically, expatriates are asked to vote in district elections using their last address in their country of origin, as is the case in Spain. However, in recent years a new trend has emerged: the creation of electoral districts to represent the interests of citizens living abroad.

A handful of European countries have been pioneers of this trend. Until relatively recently, Italian emigrants were asked to return to their cities of origin to cast their votes. But in the early 2000s, Rome passed a law allowing Italian citizens living abroad to vote in Italian elections by postal ballot. Then, the Italian government created four electoral districts abroad: Europe; North and Central America; South America; and Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica. Each of these districts was given a specific number of seats in the Italian parliament. This allowed citizens abroad to nominate candidates who campaigned in their countries of residence for seats in the Italian parliament. Since Italy allows dual citizenship, in many cases the candidates were not even Italian-born; they were descendants of Italian immigrants.

France went through a similar process. Until the late 2000s, French citizens living abroad were only allowed to vote for candidates from France or an overseas territory. But in 2010, the world was divided into 11 single-seat constituencies so that French residents living overseas would be represented in the parliament. Portugal did something similar: The Assembly of the Republic now includes one constituent to represent Portuguese emigrants in Europe and a second for those expatriates elsewhere.

This is not just a European phenomenon. In Tunisia, the parliament that was elected in 2011 reserved 18 of its 217 seats for citizens living abroad (France, home to a large Tunisian population, accounts for 10 representatives). The Algerian parliament dedicates eight of its 382 seats for expatriates, many of whom also reside in France. A few other countries around the world, including the Dominican Republic and Mozambique, also offer a small number of seats for their expatriates.

A controversial issue

Granting absentee voting rights and creating voting districts in other countries are separate issues, but both are controversial. Some political parties argue that expatriates should not vote because they often do not pay taxes and may not be aware of political events in their home countries. The issue becomes particularly sensitive for countries that extend citizenship rights to expatriates’ children and grandchildren, who often have little political or cultural connection to their forebears’ country of origin.

Expatriates’ voting rights are a particularly sensitive issue in areas in which political borders do not necessarily correspond to ethnic boundaries. Such is the case in Central Europe, where most countries have large minority populations. In 2011, Hungary angered Slovakia and Romania when it granted voting rights to ethnic Hungarians living abroad (Slovakia and Romania have sizeable Hungarian populations). Before 2011, it was common for Hungarian politicians to campaign in Romania, and Hungarian political parties had close links with parties representing ethnic Hungarians in Romania. But granting voting rights to these minorities has made campaigning even more attractive for Hungarian candidates, sparking controversy among Romanian politicians.

In the months preceding this year’s general elections in Hungary, several members of the ruling Fidesz party campaigned in Romania, which prompted Bucharest to accuse Budapest of meddling in its domestic affairs. Although bilateral tensions did not rise excessively at that time, Romania and Hungary still have unresolved issues stemming from Hungary’s territorial losses to Romania after World War I. This and the demands for autonomy by the Hungarian minority in Romania mean that every future electoral season in Hungary will likely create more tension with Romania.

Creating electoral districts abroad is even more controversial than granting absentee voting rights. Critics argue that the practice generates additional seats in parliament, adding more bureaucracy and cost. Furthermore, because voting turnout in districts abroad tends to be low, there is a concern that candidates are winning parliament seats with very little support.

The issue is also a sensitive one for the countries or regions where the districts are created. In 2012, the Canadian government said that the creation of a French electoral district in Canada was a violation of Canada’s national sovereignty and threatened to prohibit French citizens living in Canada from voting in French presidential elections. Canada’s case is particularly interesting because its approach to its expatriates differs markedly from many other countries: Canadian citizens lose their right to vote after spending five years away from the country.

Until recently, political parties were the most common method of ensuring expatriates and ethnic minorities political representation. For example, the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania represents ethnic Hungarians in Romania, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms traditionally has represented the interests of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. However, the electoral law reforms allowing emigrants to vote in elections at home and creating electoral districts abroad are changing this.

Potential regions of conflict

Despite these controversies, the issue is not causing too much tension because few expatriates actually vote, and so districts abroad are still relatively small. However, several factors could change in the coming years and make this trend more politically relevant.

The Baltic countries, with their large ethnic Russian minority populations, are a key area to watch. Roughly a third of the population of Latvia and a quarter of the population of Estonia are ethnic Russian. Though some of these people have acquired either local or Russian citizenship, there are some ethnic Russians who have no citizenship. In March, the Russian ambassador in Latvia generated controversy when he said that Moscow might soon make it easier for ethnic Russians in Latvia to obtain Russian citizenship. The Baltic states have long feared that Russia could use its influence among residents abroad to destabilize the region, a threat Moscow has often used in its political manoeuvrings.

Voting abroad is also a hot topic in Turkey; Ankara recently allowed Turkish expatriates to vote without having to return to Turkey. Before 2012, Turkish citizens living outside their home country had to vote at Turkish airports or other points of entry to the country, but in the presidential election scheduled for August they will be able to vote from the countries where they reside.

According to official data, only 7 percent of Turkish citizens living abroad returned to Turkey to vote in the last elections. With the new electoral law, the percentage of expatriates voting could rise dramatically. Figures from the Supreme Board of Elections suggest that there are 2.6 million Turkish voters living abroad, including 1.5 million Turkish citizens in Germany and 85,000 in the United States. This makes countries such as Germany an attractive political battleground for Turkish candidates. Confirming the trend, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently held a large electoral rally in Cologne, Germany – a move that created significant controversy. Several other Turkish politicians have scheduled electoral rallies in countries such as France and the Netherlands.

In the long run, the migrations from Europe’s periphery to its core could also be politically significant. With no end in sight for the European crisis, a large number of Spanish, Portuguese and Greek citizens have moved to countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom. There have also been significant migrations from the European Union’s newer members, such as Poland and Romania, to Western Europe. EU legislation allows these people to vote in municipal and EU Parliament elections in their new countries, but they cannot vote in national elections. At some point, Greek, Spanish and Polish political parties could push for the creation of electoral districts abroad, or at least include the defence of these emigrants in their domestic electoral campaigns. This could lead to additional friction between countries in the European core and countries in the periphery.

The main question is how these new voting rights and electoral districts will affect the political landscape in Europe at a time when the economic crisis is leading to greater popularity for nationalist parties. Most of these parties support the introduction of tougher limits on immigration and additional bureaucratic barriers for immigrants requesting welfare benefits. As these parties become more influential, tension is likely to mount between nationalist governments that apply tougher policies on immigration and immigrants and those governments that want to defend the interests of their citizens abroad. As expatriates become an increasingly attractive electoral target, their countries of origin will probably be more willing to defend their interests, particularly during political campaign seasons.

This article originally appeared on the webpage of Stratfor, a Texas-based thinktank.

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