Greek citizens living outside Greece, now have the right to vote in Greece’s elections. The 2019 legislation passed by New Democracy – anaemic and full with obstacles – will be the first time Greek expats will have the right to vote from their host nation. Up until now expats needed return to Greece to vote in national elections.

Opposition parties are nervous- paranoia and instinct- suggests to them that the Greeks abroad are more conservative. Many in the Diaspora are ambiguous, others are concerned that their natural political biases, often the residues of Greece’s rhetorical and partisan politics, many past, and recent crises, will vote on instinct not policies.

The supporters of the right to vote believe that the historic role the Diaspora have played in Greece since the Greek Revolution of 1821, and their role in the development of the Modern Greek state makes them real partners in the nation’s democracy.

Greece is reliant on its Diaspora – politically, intellectually, economically and culturally – and many in the Diaspora believe that Hellas cannot ignore its overseas citizens. Lip service to the Hellenes living outside Greece by visiting government officials is no longer enough for those seeking the right to vote. The Law of Return means one is Greek on an intergenerational level, and can serve in the Hellenic Armed Forces, so if you can serve, their argument goes, then you should be able to vote from wherever you live.

Forum and fora

The East Mediterranean Business Cultural Alliance (EMBCA), based in New York, will host a panel discussion titled Hellenic Republic Voting and the Diaspora next Monday, AEST, 6am (Sunday, January 15, at 2 pm U.S.A. EST and 9 pm Athens EEST).

The event will discuss the conditions for registration in the Hellenic special electoral lists of Greek citizens living outside Greece and Diaspora voting rights.

The EMBCA, “includes professionals and scholars, from various backgrounds and expertise, to organize and promote the professional and educational interests of East Mediterranean Americans.”

The discussion will be moderated by Lou Katsos EMBCA’s President and includes author and poet Nicholas Alexiou, Professor of Sociology, and Director of the American Hellenic Project (HAP); historian Alexander Billinis; Nick Theodoropoulos, the Secretary of Hellenic Diaspora Affairs for New Democracy; Stavros Basseas PhD, President, and CTO of Nantsound; and Fotis Kapetopoulos journalist for Neos Kosmos (English edition).

In an historic, albeit restricted way, Hellenic citizens living outside Greece will for the first time be able to vote under new guidelines. Until December 2019 Greek citizens permanently living abroad, and who were on Greece’s electoral roll could only vote in a national election if they went back to Greece for the election. The issue is a vexing one and has impacts often on the ability of the Diaspora, who are citizens, to participate in their homeland elections, a legitimate right for many citizens of other nations.

Vote, if you can

The ability to vote from one’s permanent home abroad in their origin nation’s elections, had been a long-standing demand for many in the Greek Diaspora. Parliamentary clashes, and the public debates regarding voting rights reflect the complex relationship between Greece and its Diaspora, and the Diaspora regarding Greece.

Since a New Democracy law passed in 2019, those Greek citizens eligible to vote must have had a two-year stay in Greece for the last 35 years, and those over 30 must be tax-registered in Greece. Until 2019 Greece was the only country in Europe, (perhaps the democratic world), where citizens living abroad were denied the right to vote in Greek elections from their country of residence, by casting a ballot at a Greek embassy, or through postal voting.

The left-wing SYRIZA party is a critic of any move that allows Greek citizens to vote from abroad in Greek national elections. SYRIZA, and the Communist KKE party argue that Greeks abroad may, “alter the will of the Greek people”.

The closest to Greece in restricting the voting rights for expatiate citizens is its Mediterranean ally, Israel.

Like Greece, Israel only recently introduced a bill in the Knesset that would extend suffrage to Israelis abroad who are not envoys to vote in Israeli elections.

As of late 2022, Israel limited voting abroad to diplomats and emissaries of Zionist institutions, who vote in embassies and consulates.

Embassy of Greece in Canberra. Photo: Neos Kosmos Archive

How about others?

The United States, Australia, France, Spain, Italy, and many other democracies encourage expatriate citizens to participate in elections and in the case of Italy, expats even have their own representatives. Spaniards who live outside Spain can vote in elections for parliamentary deputies, senators, members of the legislative assemblies of the autonomous communities. As well as “members of the assemblies of the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, and members of the European Parliament. However, they cannot vote in municipal elections” as the Spanish government’s General Access Point or Punto de Accesso General writes.

Italians who live outside Italy first need to register with Anagrafe degli Italiani Residenti all’Estero, (AIRE), the Registry of Italians Residing Abroad to vote in Italian elections. They can also vote for representatives of COMITES – Committees of Italians Abroad who sit in the Italian parliament. Melbournian, Marco Fedi the director of Co.As.It – the peak Italian community association in Victoria, was elected by Italians in Australia, who are registered with AIRE and COMITES, to represent the Australian Italian Diaspora in the Italian parliament.

Australian citizens living overseas simply go to the Australian embassy, or high commission and lodge their vote during federal elections. The Australian Electoral Commission writes that to “be eligible to enrol to vote from overseas, you must be an Australian citizen aged 18 years or older and intending to return to Australia within six years.”

After six years of living abroad though, an Australian citizen needs to return and reenrol to vote in the nation’s elections as well as Australia’s state jurisdictions.

Greek Embassy in New York. Photo: Twitter

Who’s in and who’s out?

Many Greeks, with Australian citizenship, born, or raised in Greece, migrated to Australia during Greece’s financial crisis between 2012 and 2017, as Australian citizens, without having to live in Australia.

Greek nationality is based on jus sanguinis or ‘right of blood’ where nationality is determined by the ethnicity of one or both parents. In Greece, jus sanguinis, law of blood, overturns jus soli, so it is often easier for a second, or third generation Hellene born outside Greece to secure citizenship than the child of a non-Hellene immigrant born in Greece.

Anyone of Greek descent is entitled to Greek citizenship, and any male with Greek heritage born outside Greece, who lives in Greece over a certain amount of time, must undertake military service, citizens or not.

Only Israel has a comparable law, the Law of Return, that allows Jews to claim citizenship based on heritage. Like Greece, a Jewish person returns, does Aliyah, regardless of where they were born, or reside, – migrates from the Diaspora to, historically, the geographical Land of Israel, must also go to the army. Both nations were born of Diasporas, and in a hostile neighbourhood, the Law of Return was essential in defining their modern cultural identity. Israel and Greece have both moved to extend the vote to their citizens abroad, albeit limited and only after their citizens jump through hoops.

Interestingly, Greece has now applied the Law of Return to Greek Jews coming back Greece. They can thus chose either Greece or Israel on jus sanguinis.

Back home, in Australia, the parliament amended the Australian Citizenship Act in 1986 to also define citizenship on jus sanguinis where citizenship is determined by the citizenship of the parents. Australia abolished jus soli citizenship, which determines citizenship by birth, whereas in the United States, the law of jus soli applies. President Donald Trump unsuccessfully sought to overturn jus soli as a tilt to right-wing and xenophobic sentiments, flamed by him and his allies.

And in the end?

The violent birth of modern Greece in 1821, after 400 years of Ottoman colonial occupation, was inspired by a Greek Diaspora living abroad. Wars with neighbours and the mass population exchanges after the Greco-Turkish war of 1921 – when over 2 million Hellenes were expelled from Turkey and went mainly to Greece – has defined much of the importance Greece places on Diaspora ‘returning’ to Greece.

This, like the birth of the Israeli state, saw from the 1920s onwards the increased arrival of Jews living in European and Arab states – many fleeing continued persecutions. Of course, the Holocaust, made it imperative for Jews to ‘go home’ and Israel was born as a nation state in 1949, and like Greece dependent on the Law of Return to ensure its survival. Close to 1 million Jews were either expelled or ‘returned’ from Arab states, and 688,000 immigrants came to Israel during the country’s first three and a half years. During Greece’s ‘population exchanges’ over 250,000 Muslim Greeks were exiled and in Israel up to 700,000 Arabs were exiled from the new Israel.

Things have changed and the Law of Return, the pressure for Diasporas to physically ‘come back’ to vote and participate in their cultural nation’s affairs is less vital. It also often diminishes the rights of many minorities living in Greece, and Israel, who cannot access jus soli citizenship.