Cross-border ballots

by Rainer Bauböck

Earth, how are you doing? (Issue I/2018)

The Turkish AKP's aggressive election campaign in Germany, Sweden, Austria, and the Netherlands, underscored the emerging trend of national elections going beyond national borders, or so-called transnational elections.

Until the mid-1970s, only a handful of states allowed expatriate citizens to participate in national elections. Today the number has climbed to more than one hundred. In 23 of these countries, nationals living abroad must travel to their country of origin on election day to cast their vote while in 106 they can also vote abroad, either by postal ballot, in embassies or, in rare cases, by electronic voting or by giving their vote to trusted persons in their country of origin.

In the 21st century, the answer to the question of who should vote in democratic elections is not what it once was. The right to vote in national elections often no longer depends on the place of residence, but rather hinges on citizenship. Incorporating emigrants into national elections is one strand of a broader global trend: the transnationalisation of citizenship. Another aspect of this is the increasing tolerance for dual citizenship worldwide and the growing number of state institutions serving overseas citizens.

There are different explanations for these trends. First, most states no longer view immigrants as apostates, but rather see them as an economic, cultural and political resource.

Secondly, new technologies, from cheap long-distance travel to digital media, are intensifying relations between the diaspora and their country of origin. Third, there are incentives for government parties to liberalize citizenship and the right to vote for foreign nationals in order to gain new electoral leverage.

The emergence of transnational suffrage also takes electoral campaigns beyond the national borders. From a democratic perspective, this should be welcomed. For those who have the right to vote should be given the best possible information on candidates and programmes and parties.

But the struggle to gain votes from overseas also has potential to spark inter-state conflict. This was evident in the heavy handed recent election campaigns by the Turkish AKP, but also Canada saw protests against the introduction of extraterritorial constituencies for the French National Assembly in September 2011. Protesters proffered the argument that such regulations would undermine Canada's territorial sovereignty.

So what should be done amid the transnationalisation of national election campaigns? Above all, it is important to remain pragmatic and to adhere to our principles. Firstly, this includes acknowledging the globalisation of democracy. Secondly, no double standards should be created. Too often, a state interprets immigrants' participation in elections in their countries of origin as a lack of willingness to integrate, while simultaneously fishing for votes from its own citizens living abroad. And thirdly, we must fight back where a government's power is being misused to distort the democratic process.

This was the case during Erdogan's campaign for a constitutional referendum, and was also in evidence when Viktor Orban offered foreign-born Hungarian minorities citizenship in 2010, followed by the right to vote a year later, in a move to cement his constitutional majority for a turn towards an "illiberal democracy". The problem is that, so far, national governments can only hinder such manoeuvres by denying entry to foreign politicians or by banning their visits, thus risking undermining their own values of freedom of speech and assembly.

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