“All ‘dem thieves, anyway!” says Manuel, 27 years old, starring up at the candidates’ immaculate faces on posters adorning shop windows. Neither does he believe their alluring slogans and seductive smiles. In this mixed-race area of Gare du Midi, many of the electoral candidates running for the local elections are first or second-generation immigrants. This is one way of tempting the 25% of foreign voters in Brussels. Unfortunately, this strategy does not always work. Saïd, a 23-year-old from Morocco comments, “I wouldn’t vote for a foreigner. Politicians from your own country are even worse than others.”
Two years after non-European immigrants were granted local voting rights in February 2004, the harsh criticisms against Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and his VLD party (the right-wing Flemish Liberals and Democrats) have been proven wrong. The number of immigrants who registered to vote reaches a mere 15.7%, 17 000 voters across Belgium. Authorities only grant voting rights to immigrants who have been legal residents of the country for at least five years.
Henri Goldman, a migration specialist at the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Anti-racism explains this decision: “The tens of millions of foreigners who have recently been granted Belgian nationality did not vote. These include senior citizens who have come to live with their relatives, and recent immigrants from Iran and Asia. Democratic changes take time to be implemented.’ He asks, “how many Belgians would have voted if it was not a legal obligation to do so in this country?” For in this flat land, failing to turn up on election day is an offence punishable by law, which encourages many not to register. Goldman concludes, “The disappointing level of foreign registrations varies according to local initiatives.”
The colourful stalls spread out in front of the Saint-Gilles Roman church on Sundays. Promotions and aromas of grilled chicken entice a cheerful crowd gathered in the streets. Over half of the 44,000 residents of this district of Brussels are of foreign origin, and more than 20% of these are on the electoral register. This is much higher than the national average. Sitting among the many files and folders piled up on the wooden shelves of his office, Lionel Kesenne, an assistant to the deputy mayor at the administration registry office, is proud of their local measures. “Forms were sent out to voters who wanted to register and the local community organisations helped pass on leaflets and posters explaining the voting procedures.”
However, some social mediators are quick to criticise these campaigns. 36-year-old Anissa Benabi, who runs literacy courses for a local organisation ‘Le Carria’ comments, “Spoon feeding immigrants is not going to help them become better citizens. Some of them never voted in their own countries, and others have been baffled by the rather complicated registration procedure.” Leila, an Algerian woman who has been living in Brussels for 6 years describes how she received the registration forms “during the summer holidays when there was nobody home”. The deadline for applications was 31st July.
Myriam Mottard is the exuberant general secretary of the CNAPD (National Coordination of Action for Peace and Democracy), a platform that encompasses various organisations in the Brussels region. She regrets that pre-registration procedures are rather disorganised. “It was only in March that information become available, after a last-minute amendment to the law restricted suffrage to foreigners who were legal resident. Without this change, the 2004 law would have applied to those without residency permits.” Mottard berates another obstacle to foreigners’ registration: the obligation to sign the Universal Human Rights Constitution and the Belgian Constitution. “This is a discriminatory and stupid measure,” she protests. “Anyone living on Belgian soil should respect the law.”
Disinterest and discrimination
Victoria Videgain Santiago, 50, witnesses regular breaches of the law in Saint-Gilles. Battered wives and homeless people visit the legal advice centre that she has been running since 1999 every day. This green-eyed lawyer of Chilean origin sits on a café terrace, explaining why she is standing as the socialist candidate in the local elections. “Having survived and escaped the Pinochet regime, I really appreciate democracy and want to get involved,” she says, waving cordially at a passer-by. “I know what it is like to be an immigrant.” Videgain Santiago believes the number of registered foreign residents is “encouraging”, but she is wary of the “general decline in interest, not only among immigrants but also among young people who want more change.”
EU citizens have obtained the right to vote in 1998 and also seem indifferent to local elections. Only 17% of the Europeans living in Saint-Gilles registered. Are they behaving like upper-class clandestine workers: “Europeans living in Brussels feel they are expatriates not Belgian citizens,“ says Mottard. “The vote is the poor man’s weapon,“ adds Goldman. “What use is that weapon to those who work for European institutions and lead protected sheltered lives?“
The leaders of Vlaams Belang use the disinterest displayed by immigrants to justify their extremist points of view. Furthermore the indifference to elections pushes local agents to question the collective political community in Belgium. “I think this low turn-out suits the politicians perfectly,“ says Anissa Benabi. “None of the parties campaigned to give foreigners the right to vote; they were all content with the slight change in the law. It is thus becoming increasingly important to raise political awareness.“