One of the longest-standing unresolved political issues, the right of Greeks abroad to participate in elections, has gained new relevance recently, during a parliamentary debate in Greece, regarding legislation to change electoral divisions – and particularly to break the country’s largest electorate, that of the outer suburbs of Athens, into three divisions.
The opposition proposed an amendment to the legislation (which also regulates municipal elections, linking them to the ones about the European Parliament), suggesting that every Greek citizen, registered in the electorate catalogues, should be able to vote at Greek embassy or consulate offices of their place of residency (the same right should be reserved for sailors, at the place where their ship is docked on election day).
This draft legislation was rejected by government MPs, leading Nea Dimokratia to issue a strongly worded statement, noting that this is the third time in two years that the opposition has raised the issue of voting rights for Greeks abroad, asking: “Is the government afraid of Greeks?”
The same accusation was expressed in parliament by Stavros Theodorakis, leader of the centrist party ‘To Potami’ (‘The River’), who submitted his own proposal in parliament, that includes provisions for a postal vote and an electronic vote for Greeks abroad, but also sees that these votes would add to the ones that each party would get throughout Greece, instead of being counted to specific electorate divisions.
In his response to Stavros Theodorakis’ speech, the Minister of Interior, Panos Skourletis, expressed the government’s commitment to present a draft bill to resolve the issue, by the end of 2018. The leader of Potami went on Twitter to celebrate this “victory for Greeks living abroad”.
The issue of voting rights for Greeks abroad has been looming for 43 years. The 1975 Greek Constitution, written after the fall of the dictatorship, and marking the start of what is known as the ‘Third Hellenic Republic’, clearly states that every Greek citizen has the right to vote. Specifically, Article 51. 4 states: “Parliamentary elections shall be held simultaneously throughout the State. Matters pertaining to the exercise of the right to vote by persons living outside the Country may be specified by law.” However, such legislation is yet to be presented, largely due to reluctance from a series of governments, including five led by Nea Dimokratia, which now claims that ‘the Greeks abroad’ vote has always been a high priority for the party.
WHO, WHERE AND HOW TO VOTE
Despite polemic rhetoric and accusations being exchanged between parties, the difficulty to regulate it is believed to be multi-faceted – any law regulating this issue would have to address three questions: who is allowed to vote, where and how voting takes place and how are these votes counted.
The first question is the only one answered in the constitution; all Greek citizens can vote. Constitutional and civic law experts have long called for this to be further specified. According to the Hellenic Citizenship Code, “any child born to Greek parents acquires citizenship rights by descent. This would include children of migrants throughout the diaspora, provided they have declared births to the specific registry, or that they can prove descent – which might mean tracking back records dating back decades, and there are many cases in Greece where authorities are unable to unearth or locate documents, sometimes due to them being destroyed. This means that the actual number of voters who would effectively get to take part in the elections would be much smaller than what many in Greece imagine, confusing the Greek citizens abroad with the whole of the Hellenic diaspora as a whole. Another issue that constitutional law experts raise has to do with how long has someone lived abroad, as a factor that would determine whether they should have the right to vote, as opposed to everyone carrying a Greek passport automatically given this right.
As for the voting process itself, this reflects to systemic problems of the Greek state – and the overall efficiency of the public sector. All parties participating in the current debate have said that voting should take place in embassies and consulates, but many Greeks who have the right to vote, do not live in proximity of diplomatic missions. Best practice, based in international experience, has shown that the most efficient and reliable method would be the postal vote, but Greece remains averse to this voting method. International experience could also point to the most practical way to count these votes. Greek politicians have yet to decide whether these votes would count to the electorate division each voter is registered under, or if they should be added to each party’s overall performance. Some point to what applies in other countries, calling for specific electorate divisions to be created, catering for the representation needed of Greeks abroad.
Analysts largely dismiss the theory that Greek governments are afraid of Greeks abroad, because they would affect the outcome; what most see as a real problem is the country’s ability to set up a mechanism that would ensure a successful process. Which means that Mr Skourletis has a lot of work – and consultation – awaiting, if he really means to live up to his commitment.