Ever Elusive Immigrant Suffrage

Article published on Nov. 24, 2003
community published
Article published on Nov. 24, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Obligations, yes. Rights? Not really. In Spain the disenfranchised underclass represents 2% of the population - and a whopping 7% throughout the European Union as a whole.

It seems only a matter of common sense that every person living in a society should have the right to participate politically and choose who is to govern them. Nevertheless, although immigrants contribute to the cultural and economic wealth of their host country, they often don’t have this right. Europe’s political landscape is, in this respect, extremely mixed. While there are countries where for more than 26 years immigrants have been incorporated into the electorate, many others – Spain, for instance – are yet to start seriously debating the issue.

The situation in Spain

In Spain there are some 1'500'000 registered foreigners, according to the National Institute of Statistics. But, as only those born in member states of the EU can vote in local elections, that leaves 75% excluded, that is, those of African, Latin-American or Oriental origin. It may be true that, in accordance with the immigration laws, immigrants from countries that extend this same right to Spaniards – like Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Peru – do have the right to vote. Nevertheless, the concept of integration is so far from becoming reality that, in practice, very few exercise this right.

This discrepancy in the rights of those born outside of Europe has sparked off initiatives from the Left and from various NGOs but, so far at least, they’ve come to nothing. In Spain, the organisation Red Ciudadana has highlighted that it is precisely local government that is most closely linked to the interests of the immigrants and they rely on it more and more for aspects relating to their everyday lives and social integration (social services, nurseries, housing or work). For this reason, immigrants must be allowed to participate in politics, to elect and also to stand for election themselves. Sadly, political parties tend to ignore proposals of this kind; it’s surprising that they haven’t felt tempted by these as yet non-existent votes.

Where the immigrant vote counts

In Europe, 7% of the total population is excluded from the right to vote – this percentage represents those entering countries through migratory waves. However, many countries took a positive step towards immigrant suffrage years ago. Examples are Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Holland and Ireland, all of which recognise the immigrant’s right to vote in local elections.

Ireland has been considering this right since 1963 for immigrants who have been resident for over 6 months; Sweden, since 1975, for those resident for over 3 years; Denmark, the same, since 1981; and Holland, since 1985, from 5 years’ residence. Less exemplary cases are Great Britain, which has offered this right to all members of its Commonwealth since 1948, and Finland, which grants the right but only to foreigners from fellow Scandinavian countries who have been resident for over 3 years.

Meanwhile, German and Italian election manifestos reveal plans to grant the right to vote after one year’s residence. But it is in Italy that we find the biggest debate of recent times over the issue of immigrant suffrage. In October Gianfraco Fini, leader of the ex-fascist party National Alliance and vice-president of Silvio Berlusconi’s government, presented a bill more befitting the Left: that immigrants should be given the vote.

A complex debate

The debate over immigrant suffrage has been running for years, and arguments for and against don’t always correspond predictably to the left or the right of the political spectrum respectively. And this is because when it comes to immigration there is no perfectly homogenous thinking springing from a particular ideology, party or government. Just take the Fini example.

In Spain, the only voice from among the parties to be heard in favour of the call for change is the Izquierda Unida, the United Left, that launched a campaign this year entitled ‘I live here, I vote here’ to fight for the right of all non-EU immigrants to vote. For the United Left, this political marginalisation undermines the legitimacy of democracy. And it represents the lack of the universality of rights that would pave the way for integration. How can we claim to want to put an end to discrimination – the victims of which are immigrants - if this type of legal discrimination is allowed to continue?

But other voices, and not necessarily those of the right, have declared themselves to be against a process of integration from fear that migratory waves undermine the ‘purity’ of European civilisations. Of those loyal to this school of thought one of the most surprising is Oriana Fallaci, who has said that:

‘For the very reason that it has been defined over the course of many centuries, and is very precise, our cultural identity cannot withstand a migratory wave composed of people that in one way or another want to change our way of life, our values. I am saying that in our country there is no room for the muezzin, for the minarets, for the false abstainers, for their fucking Middle Ages, for their fucking chador. And if there were, I would not give it to them. Because it would be the same as throwing away our civilisation’.

According to a report on immigration from Brussels, to maintain today’s population will, in 2050, take around 16 million immigrants. These figures only go up if we establish different parameters: in order to be able to guarantee the same standard of living in 2050 as we had in 1998, we’ll need about 50 million immigrants and to keep the same active population we’ll need 80 million.

Going by these predictions, in 47 years’ time there will be one immigrant for every three native Europeans. 25% of the population will speak a non-European language as their mother tongue and practise a non-European religion. Certainly no other civilisation has experienced anything like this. We’ll have to wait and see if the debate over the right to vote is renewed over the long years to come. Because, unless something pretty drastic happens, sooner or later we’ll have no choice but to accept integration: the right to vote cannot be determined solely by national identity, especially in multinational states like Spain and Italy.