Campaigning for the expat vote

13th September 2006, Comments 0 comments

Belgium goes to the polls next month in the country's first municipal elections in six years. What are the mainstream political parties doing to attract the expat vote? Martin Banks finds out.

When voters in Belgium are asked to elect hundreds of local councillors on 8 October it will be the traditional "local" issues, such as waste, parking policy and roads that are expected to be uppermost in their minds.

Belgium will head to the polls on 8 October

But what are the country's main political parties doing, if anything, to court the votes of expatriates and immigrants living in Belgium?

If you listen to Flemish Interior Minister Marino Keulen, non-EU nationals in Belgium are simply not interested in voting in the municipal elections.

Initially, the facts would seem to suggest he might be correct.

In total, just 17,065 non-EU nationals registered to vote by the 31 July deadline, representing just 15.71 percent of eligible voters.

The picture is a bit brighter among EU nationals living in Belgium: some 110,973 are registered to vote (20.94 percent of potential EU voters).

In Brussels, 6,622 non-EU nationals, or 15.66 percent of eligible non-EU voters, registered, while in Flanders the figure was 5,352, or 12.62 percent and 5,091 or 21.3 percent in Wallonia.

Interestingly, the percentage of registered EU citizens in Brussels (13.6 percent) is lower than in Flanders (16.8 percent) and in Wallonia (28.4 percent).

This will be the first local election in which non-EU citizens (who have lived in Belgium for at least five years) will be allowed to vote and the parties are clearly divided in the importance they attach to the foreigner vote.

Social Democrat SP.A

SP.A, the Flemish Social Democrat party, is one of the few political parties to have waged an awareness-raising campaign aimed specifically at expats.

*sidebar1*It has produced an English booklet — SPOTS ON BRUSSELS — in which it presents its priorities and candidates for the election.

"With the booklet, SP.A wants to give expats an insight into what the party and its candidates in Brussels stand for," said Joeri Hamvas, who is standing for election for the party.

"Many of the expats in Brussels registered to vote for the election and that is a good thing. It shows that, contrary to the belief of many Belgians, they feel part of our city and that Brussels is their hometown in a way."

Hamvas, who works as an assistant to Dutch MEP Edith Mastenbroek, says many of the party's policies appeal to all voters, irrespective of their nationality.

"SP.A has decided to go to the elections focusing on mobility and a clean and green Brussels, a city where we like to live and enjoy," he says.

"The message we are sending to foreigners is that, for SP.A, you are as much a citizen of Brussels as anyone else here. Brussels should be a good place to live for all its inhabitants."

Liberal MR

Like the SP.A, the French-speaking Liberal MR party has taken steps to appeal to the foreigner vote, producing leaflets, in English, spelling out how expats and immigrants go about registering to vote and the complexities of the Belgian voting system.

"In Belgium, municipalities have a very broad range of competences and can make decisions that have a direct impact on the daily lives of people," party spokesman Raymond Bove says.

"Things such as road and park development, education and culture are issues which affect everyone."

He conceded that, despite what he calls the centre-right party's best efforts, the election did not appear to have created great interest among expats and immigrants.

"The number of foreigners who registered to vote is generally seen as disappointing. One reason for this is that, in Belgium, once you have registered you have to vote or face a possible fine. This could have put some people off," he says.

But Bove stresses his party is still very much interested in the immigrant vote.

"A lot of immigrants in Belgium are self-employed and our party is putting forward specific fiscal policies, including improved pension rights, aim

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