There are 427,000 Greeks who have left their country in the past decade according to statistics of the Central Bank of Greece. These newly-departed Greeks are just part of a larger group of more established diasporans that are impacted by the country’s legislation due to assets in Greece, but are banned from participating in crucial decisions concerning Greece’s future via an external voting system.
The rule book is about to change with the New Democracy government’s pledge to give Greeks abroad the right to vote from their place of residence by September 2019.
“I hope this issue will secure the necessary convergence in Parliament,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, hoping that this time – the fourth attempt since 2007 – the law will pass. “If there is a law that all 300 deputies must vote for, it’s this one,” he said.
Wishing to further encourage the government in its push to give diasporans voting rights, Greek Community of Melbourne (GCM) President Bill Papastergiadis met with Greek Interior Minister Takis Theodorikakos in Athens last week. They discussed a number of issues, including the diasporan vote and all the advantages that would come with it.
“I explained in detail all of our key initiatives and activities at the GCM,” Mr Papastergiadis told Neos Kosmos.
“I spent 20 minutes giving him this deep overview… He was thoroughly impressed and was even more impressed with our ability to work closely with all tiers of government.”
In return, Mr Theodorikakos – who has a strong platform to improve access to the vote for the diaspora – pledged that the new Greek PM “will bring in the relevant bill so that Greeks around the world can partake in decisions taken by Greeks in Greece concerning our government.”
Proponents of the voting rights feel that they are being punished for escaping a stagnated economy, many having to pay a last-minute ticket to Greece in order to cast their ballot. “These people have assets, family and a deep connection to Greece. They should be allowed to vote if they choose to do so,” Mr Papastergiadis said.
“Every western country in the world allows its citizens to vote at election time from outside its borders. Greece is one of the few countries that doesn’t. For a country that is the birthplace of democracy, it is an indictment on Greece to not allow its citizens to vote abroad.”
Opposition to external voting
Opponents, however, are concerned that those who have left the country would not be able to make an accurate decision, having not personally stuck out through the turmoils of the debt crisis and the harsh realities of daily life in post-bailout Greece.
“If this was enforced, I’m afraid people would tend to act sentimentally,” Astypalaia-based Greek Australian language institute owner, Angela Petrinolis told Neos Kosmos.
“They would vote with their heart, remembering what it ‘used to be’ like. They would not know the reality of the situation.”
Former Athens-based Melburnian journalist Christos Catopodis agrees.”As a matter of principle only people who are affected by policies and decisions should be allowed to have a say at ballots and expats do not experience everyday life in Greece,” he told Neos Kosmos.
Others, like Athens-based teacher/poet Debbie Papadakis, point to the huge differences between Greek and Australian perceptions. Ms Papadakis points to the reaction of the Australian presenters on the ‘Outsiders’ who “broke plates and danced syrtaki” when they heard the election results.
“If Australian Greeks were to vote, how would that change the outcome of the results?” Ms Papadakis wondered, looking back on the last 10 years she points to huge “turnarounds” on the Greek political scene.
“We saw SYRIZA come to power promising to tear up the memorandums and to negotiate with Troika and the EU, mainly German Financial Minister Wolfgang Schauble. We even saw a ‘no’ referendum vote change to a ‘yes’ vote. The question is how democratic is the EU becoming? And how would the vote of Australian Greeks influence the outcome of the current situation here in Europe?”
Fears that the diaspora’s vote could topple governments may be groundless when considering the figures of the Greek Interior Ministry at this year’s EP elections. These showed that 11,792 from a total of 14,892 Greek citizens registered to vote in other European countries reflected the more general sentiment of Greeks voting in Greece. The results showed that the New Democracy Party received 33.9 per cent of the vote, SYRIZA came in a distant second with an extremely disappointing 15.3 per cent, followed by the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) with 14.1 per cent of the vote, and 8.6 per cent for the Movement for Change.
Maintaining meaningful ties
Mr Papastergiadis, who is doing all he can to ensure that the diaspora’s ties with Greece are strong, can see many advantages in giving Greeks abroad a vote. “A vote means more than just filling out a ballot,” he said
“It means reflecting and engaging on all the issues that relate to your country. It brings you closer to your country
“By allowing the vote, Greece will send a message to its citizens that every one counts. That we are all one. Hopefully this will lead to more engagement both culturally and economically.
“From a pure practical perspective it will also mean that the Greek Government will also reflect on its relationship with its citizens living abroad. Greece will pay much more attention to the issues confronting those abroad when there is a vote involved.”
Nicole Trian, a Greek Australian journalist/lecturer currently living and working in Paris, disagrees that “nationals abroad are casting an uninformed ballot, skewing the election towards a ‘bad’ outcome for the country.”
She said that living in a country is not a requirement of staying informed. “There are plenty of voters who despite living the day-to-day experiences of a country’s policies – and I’d include countries seemingly politically and economically stable, like Australia, the US, what we’ve seen in the UK with Brexit – that don’t bother to learn enough about what the politicians are proposing. They too are voting out of ignorance or something equivalent to what some are calling a ‘Greek sentimentality’. But you can’t regulate to prevent an unenlightened vote,” she told Neos Kosmos.
Independently collected data by Synpraxis, a Greek community think-tank, showed that Greek citizens living abroad remain aware of the Greek political process. Their study found that Greeks abroad could correctly identify the political parties who supported the ‘yes’ vote in the 2015 referendum, while over 20 per cent of citizens living abroad remained active in Greek political parties and pressure groups, a greater portion to those of citizens living in Greece. Furthermore, it was found that 60 per cent of Greeks abroad had completed their military service, 60 per cent are still taxpayers of Greece and 80 per cent had lived at least half their lives in Greece.
For University of Sydney lecturer Vrasidas Karalis, Greeks in Australia are aware of what is going on in Greece thanks to technology.
“I think that distance is not a problem anymore and most Greeks, from all over the world, know enough to make an informed choice about voting. I also believe that since many Greeks of the diaspora pay taxes then they must have the right to vote in the national and European Elections,” he said.
Looking at logistics
Of course, agreeing to the Greek right to vote is one thing, and actually putting it in place with the right mechanism is another.
“The most serious problem that I see if they are going to vote for a specific electorate (wherever they are enrolled) or for the Supreme Court (Συμβούλιο Επικρατείας),” Mr Karalis said. “There we must focus our attention and formulate a coherent proposal. I don’t think that we have to re-draw the electoral map of the country for new representatives or increase their number in the parliament.
“On the contrary the number of MPs must be reduced and the constitution must be revised for the introduction of a body like the Senate in Australia which will hold the governing party accountable.
“Perhaps the question of the diaspora vote should give the opportunity for a deep constitutional and institutional reform in the governance of the country.”
The diaspora vote could provide the opportunity to reinvigorate democracies, not just in Greece, but in Australia. Ms Trian believes that the opportunity of change could also be accompanied by a “publicly funded education campaign reminding voters of their rights and responsibilities – that they ask questions of their local representatives, engage with their communities and have a healthy scepticism that can be used to hold politicians and their promises to account.”
The Greek Constitution, adopted in 1975 after the fall of the generals, recognises the right of Greek expatriates to vote abroad but it does not oblige the Greek legislature to establish arrangements for Greeks to exercise their voting rights through the country’s embassies. Greek MPs have yet to enforce this law.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) set a precedent in the case of Greek-French resident Sitaropoulos (2012) where it recognised the plaintiffs capacity to participate in public dialogue, influence positions of political parties and be impacted by laws legislated by Greece’s elected parliament. However, it ruled that there is no obligation under international or regional law for States to ensure that their citizens are able to vote abroad. It noted that although the majority of Council of State Members allowed their citizens abroad to vote in their place of residence, others did not.
A longstanding rule in the UK bans expat Britons from voting in domestic elections once they have been out of the country for 15 years. France and Italy have members of their national assemblies exclusively elected by expatriates.