The government is again debating the issue of ballot rights for foreigners, but will we ever get our vote?
In a few years from now, non-EU citizens living in Belgium may be able to vote for mayor and other locally elected officials.
Since 1998, citizens of other EU countries with legal residency here been allowed to participate in local elections, as Belgium finally changed its constitution to comply with the 1993 Maastricht Treaty establishing the European Union.
Three Belgian senators have now drafted proposals urging that the right to vote in local elections be extended to non-EU citizens. The proposals – put forward by the French Socialists, Flemish Socialists and the Greens – are all very similar.
However, they differ on their recommendations of the length of time a non-EU citizen should have legal residency here before being allowed to vote. While two of the proposals would give those persons the right to vote after only three years, the French Socialists have suggested five years.
“If you live in a country and pay taxes then you are part of the community,” said Fatma Pehlivan, a Socialist senator from Ghent who supports the move. “Therefore you should also have the right to vote and take decisions on which party policy to have.”
The Turkey native came to Belgium 36 years ago and has taken on Belgian nationality. But she feels that citizenship should not be a prerequisite for the right to vote.
If the proposals are accepted, non-EU residents could participate in the next round of local elections in 2006. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will rush out to voting booths.
Only about 15 percent of non-Belgian EU citizens voted in last October’s local elections, the first time they were allowed to do so after the change in the constitution. One reason for the low turnout may have been that those who chose to vote were required to first go to their commune and declare their intention to vote. Some argue that non-EU citizens should be required to do the same, but that is still under debate.
Still, those campaigning on behalf of non-EU citizens say it’s irrelevant whether people choose to exercise their right or not, but they should at least have the option.
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt’s Flemish Liberals (VLD) are resisting moves to extend voting rights to foreigners. The party would rather see non-Belgians take advantage of a law adopted two years ago which seeks to make it easier to obtain Belgian nationality. Their argument goes that if you become a Belgian citizen, then you have the right to vote as well as other privileges of citizenship.
The VLD has shown some flexibility, however, asking that hearings be held by the Senate’s interior committee so that the matter can be studied further.
The hearings are scheduled in two weeks from now. Representatives from Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands are due to report on experiences those countries have had in allowing non-Europeans to vote.