Greece Is Ready to Give Its Diaspora Voting Rights
Parliament is about to give Greeks abroad the right to vote from their place of residence.
“How come you didn’t vote in the elections?” Most Greeks living abroad found themselves in the awkward position of having to answer this question last July. They went on to explain that Greece does not allow Greek people who reside outside of the country to vote in parliamentary elections and referenda. “Why?” the interlocutor asks if the conversation advanced thus far. A shrug of the shoulders follows.
Until now, Greeks living abroad have had to return to Greece to exercise their democratic right in national elections. After completing a hundred days in power, the government seems ready to change that, but the question of the vote from abroad is not as easy to resolve as it might sound.
European elections aside, Greeks abroad cannot currently vote from their place of residence. The demand to enable voting from abroad has been ongoing, to varying degrees, since the early days of democracy in modern Greece. Notably, Greeks abroad voted for the first and only time in the election of November 1862, when they elected representatives of the diaspora to Parliament. Since then, however, governmental initiative to permanently establish a mechanism for voting from abroad has been limited. For years, the issue had been downgraded and no government had made a serious and organized effort to tackle it.
As the number of Greeks leaving the country rose rapidly during the last, crisis-ridden decade, the question of allowing the vote from abroad became more prominent. Greeks abroad gradually organized and launched petitions to claim the right to cast their vote from their place of residence. For example, the initiative Braingain, co-founded by the newly elected New Democracy member of Parliament, Konstantinos Kyranakis, has begun an online petition to push for the vote from abroad. In May 2019, the number of signatories rose to 70,000, a figure that gained widespread media attention.
For Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, giving Greeks abroad the right to vote in elections from their country of residence is “self-evident”. Having lived outside of Greece for a significant part of his life, from his early years in Paris to his time as a student in the United States, and from there to London, where he worked in consulting, Mitsotakis has every reason to want to be the Prime Minister who will finally enable Greeks abroad to vote from their place of residence.
But apart from personal reasons, the Prime Minister is also interested in the political gains of such a move. As most Greeks residing abroad live in economically developed western countries, Mitsotakis could think that the diaspora would judge his reformist, liberal profile favorably. After all, politicians seem to see Greeks abroad as a public that identifies politically with the conservative camp — even though no data proves this point conclusively. This assumption is largely based on the Greek diaspora living in the United States, where a majority of the Greek community votes faithfully for the Republican Party. Mitsotakis’ ties with that specific community are strong, as manifested by his choice for deputy Foreign Affairs minister for expatriate Greeks, Mr. Antonis Diamataris. Until a few months ago, when he entered the world of government, Diamataris was the CEO and publisher of The National Herald, the newspaper of New York’s Greek community.
But not everyone in Greece agrees with Mitsotakis on the vote from abroad being “self-evident”. Since the public discussion on the issue started in early October, several people have expressed opinions against the vote from abroad. The debate is centered around the impact of the election result on one’s life. Evidently, people living abroad are less affected by the policy followed in Greece. This is particularly true with regards to economic policy issues, such as taxation, which has been the central point of discussion in Greece since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2009. Moreover, doubts have been raised concerning the volatility of the vote from abroad, with some arguing that, as emigrants do not directly ‘feel’ the consequences of their vote, they are less likely to change their choice from one election to another.
Should people living abroad be able to influence the election result, even if their vote is in disaccord with the vote of Greek residents? And if so, who should be eligible to vote from those living outside of Greece? Should there be restrictions or no? Should the vote take place in person at the consulate or could they vote via post? These questions have been subject to discussion in people’s homes, on social media, TV panels, and in the Parliament’s corridors during the past few weeks.
The history behind the debate
In the Metapolitefsi years — after the fall of the military junta in 1974 — the issue of extending voting rights to Greeks abroad has not been tackled. The 1975 Constitution did not forbid, neither did it extend the right to vote from abroad. The constitutional reform of 2001 first addressed the question in paragraph 4 of Article 51, saying that “a bill supported by a 2/3 majority in Parliament could define accordingly concerning the exercise of the right to vote by people outside of the country.” Even though this was perceived by many as an invitation to governments and political parties to address the issue, the moves to do so have so far been timid and have yet to meet with success.
In 2009, the New Democracy government of Kostas Karamanlis proposed a bill to the Parliament, but did not manage to secure a 2/3 majority, as opposition parties (except for far-right LAOS) voted against the government’s proposal. The bill suggested the extension of voting rights to all Greeks living permanently abroad and the inclusion of members of the diaspora on the state ballot. Greeks living abroad would be able to vote in person at consular authorities in their country of residence. PASOK, SYN (the predecessor of SYRIZA) and KKE stood firm against the bill, which they characterized as “unconstitutional”, arguing that its implementation would significantly alter the electoral body, introducing around 1 million new voters from abroad. The Karamanlis government knew at the time that the bill had no chance of becoming law. Even so, the bill was brought to Parliament to manifest New Democracy’s support to the diaspora’s demand for the right to vote.
In 2016, New Democracy raised the issue again from their seats in the opposition, proposing a similar bill to the one that had been rejected in 2009. Unsurprisingly, the bill was not ratified. The same process was repeated in 2017. As mentioned before, the insistence of New Democracy on the issue is, to a large extent, a reflection of the centre-right party’s view of the diaspora as a public favourable to their political positions. In the same way, the centre-left PASOK was historically against giving Greeks abroad the right to vote from their place of residence, perceiving the diaspora as a privileged public of their rivals.
In 2018, the SYRIZA government tried to tackle the issue of the vote from abroad. The former Minister of Interior, Alexis Charitsis, ordered the creation of a committee responsible for proposing a bill that the government would then bring to Parliament. The committee’s proposal revolved around the following principles:
i) extending the right to vote to all Greeks abroad eligible to vote,
ii) vote in person at consular authorities or other polling stations and
iii) a closed representation system, in which voters abroad would only vote for a number of state deputies and their vote would not be accounted for in the elections’ overall result — that it, that Greeks abroad would not vote for the government, but only for the distribution of a specific number of seats.
The third point created controversy within the committee itself. Notably, Constitutional Law professor Mr. Nikos Alivizatos, who was a member of the committee, disagreed on the closed representation system, arguing that it would not respect the constitutional principle of the equal value of the vote. However, as he told AthensLive “the opposite opinion, which happened to be that of Mr. Charitsis as well, prevailed.”
The committee handed its proposal to Mr. Charitsis in April 2019, but the bill was never brought to Parliament, largely due to the density of political activity during that period, with European elections followed by early legislative elections. Even if the bill was proposed, however, it seemed impossible that it would have become law, as the government would be unable to secure a 2/3 majority. The committee’s proposal has been severely criticized for not giving equal voting power to Greeks abroad. According to PM Mr. Mitsotakis, SYRIZA’s proposal treated Greeks in the diaspora as “second-class citizens”.
A scientific study of the vote from abroad
Voting from abroad in Greece has also been the subject of scientific research, especially during since 2009. In December 2017, the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) published a report by Dr. Anna Irene Baka, supervised by Constitutional Law Professor Dr. Giorgos Gerapetritis — today, the latter is state minister responsible for the coordination of the government. This report suggested three alternative ways of action to Greek legislators: (i) extending voting rights to all Greeks abroad, or (ii) introducing restrictions regarding the duration of voters’ absence from the country, or (iii) restricting the influence of the vote from abroad to only three seats in Parliament.
Today, Dr. Anna Irene Baka is following the developments concerning the vote from abroad very closely. According to Dr. Baka, “the simplest way forward would be to give the right to vote from abroad to everyone”. However, she sees the reasons why this is an issue for some. Concerning the Charitsis committee’s proposal, Dr. Baka argues that “the closed representation system is a sensible restriction, recognized by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body.” She insists, however, that “the state should not restrict the right of people to vote, as it does today.” After all, “the argument that non-residents are not affected by the election result falls apart when we see that around 700,000 people left Greece between 2009 and 2015.”
The question of the vote from abroad has also been raised by scholars internationally who have explored the different ways in which emigrants have been given the right to vote. Systems that allow citizens abroad to vote in national elections and referenda are in place in most countries. According to a study on patterns of extra-territorial voting dating back to 2017, from a sample of 144 countries, 102 allow citizens to vote from abroad, either for their home district or for representatives of the diaspora.
Several countries allow citizens abroad to vote as long as they have not been away for more than a specific amount of time. In the UK, the limit is 15 years, while in Germany it is 25 years. Australians abroad, on the other hand, can only vote if they have registered to do so within three years of leaving their country and they also intend to return to Australia within six years of leaving.
On the other hand, US citizens living abroad are granted the right to vote in federal elections without restrictions, provided they register to vote. This is also true for France, Italy, Lebanon, and the Netherlands, to name a few, though the representation of emigrant voters differs. In contrast, the Republic of Ireland does not give Irish citizens abroad the right to participate in elections, basing this decision on the fact that the Irish diaspora is too large and would inevitably have too big an impact on the election result.
Should Greece extend voting rights to its diaspora?
The argument that has been used historically to prevent the extension of voting rights to Greeks abroad is based on the same logic as that of the Republic of Ireland. As a country with a large diaspora, the number of eligible voters residing outside of Greece might be big enough to alter decisively the electoral body and thus, the election result.
According to article 51 of the Greek Constitution, all Greek citizens have the right to vote. The right to vote can only be restricted if the citizen is not old enough to vote, or if they have lost their political rights as a result of criminal activity. Therefore, all Greek citizens are automatically registered in the electoral lists. Greece being a country that gives citizenship on the basis of jus sanguinis (“right of the blood”), a Greek citizen is anyone who proves their Greek descent, even if that goes several generations back.
This presents a potential thorn in the issue of the vote from abroad. A law with no restrictions would probably make the case for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of new voters from second, third and fourth generation Greek migrants to the USA, Australia, and other countries, altering the electoral body decisively.
Where do the parties stand?
The government is currently working in coordination with all parliamentary parties on the bill that will be submitted for a vote in Parliament. As of Friday, 18 October 2019, a basis for an inter-party agreement has been found. If the bill that the Mitsotakis government will propose sticks to this agreement, it will manage to secure the 200 votes necessary to extend voting rights to Greeks abroad. The Prime Minister himself has set the bar high since the beginning of the process, aiming at getting all 300 MPs to support the bill.
The inter-party committee on the vote of the diaspora found, on Tuesday 22 October, a final formula that satisfies 5 out of 6 parliamentary parties: only Yanis Varoufakis’ MeRA25 has expressed disagreement. This formula consists of the following elements:
i) vote from abroad to be accounted for in the overall result,
ii) the right to vote from abroad is given to people who can prove their stay in Greece for a minimum of 2 years in the 35-year period before the time of the vote,
iii) citizens abroad to vote for the state ballot, which could include Greek citizens living abroad in electable positions, and
iv) vote in person, in embassies, consulates or other selected venues.
- New Democracy
As the government is working on the final bill on the basis of the negotiations held with the parliamentary parties, New Democracy’s historical position of extending voting rights to all Greek citizens abroad and establishing vote by post seems to have been dismissed by the government. The governing party’s long-held position was the basis on which Prime Minister Mitsotakis called party leaders to discuss it in the first place, but, realizing that a 2/3 majority would be impossible, the government was willing to take a few steps back and satisfy other parties’ demands, while keeping the principle of the vote’s equal value intact.
At the end of the inter-party committee’s meeting on 22 October, the Minister of Interior, Takis Theodorikakos, defended the government’s change of stance, saying that “the government wanted to facilitate voting from abroad for everyone, notably allowing for vote by post, but we could not secure the 200 votes that the Constitution demands.” Theodorikakos also reassured the parties that the government will provide for the constitutional backing of the bill.
The position of SYRIZA on the issue of the vote from abroad was that the Parliament should adopt the proposals of the committee that Alexis Charitsis set up in 2018. As mentioned before, these were: (i) extending the right to vote to all Greeks abroad eligible to vote, (ii) vote in person and (iii) vote from abroad to only be accounted for in the distribution of a number of seats, and not in the elections’ overall result (closed representation).
After the first round of meetings of Mitsotakis with party leaders, SYRIZA was isolated as the only party unwilling to discuss with the government. However, the government’s step back concerning the imposition of restrictions changed this. On Wednesday 16 October, Giorgos Katrougkalos, responsible for the party’s position on the issue, argued that SYRIZA is open to discussing, “as long as there are measures taken that guarantee that the electoral body will not be altered decisively”, while stressing the need to amend the Constitution so that the law for the vote from abroad is not considered unconstitutional.
On Tuesday, October 22, Katrougkalos said that the conditions presented by the Minister of Interior, Takis Theodorikakos, satisfied SYRIZA “in principle”, but that the party’s position on the issue will be decided when the bill will be brought to Parliament, and provided that the government gives constitutional backing to the inter-party agreement.
KINAL’s proposal regarding the right of people to vote from abroad is practically the same with that of New Democracy, with a small differentiation regarding the constituencies for which the diaspora will vote. This stance is new for KINAL, making a break with what had been the position of PASOK (KINAL’s predecessor) throughout the Metapolitefsi years. This could be due to the fact that PASOK carries a strong brand name, especially in communities that have not been closely following the political developments in Greece since the beginning of the crisis, when PASOK lost the majority of its voters.
- KKE (Communist Party of Greece)
The Communist Party’s position on the issue was initially based on the following elements: (i) a maximum of 30 years abroad, (ii) possession of an active Greek taxation number and (iii) vote in person. Due to technical difficulties in satisfying the first criterion, KKE agreed to the proposal of raising the number of years abroad to 35, in exchange for introducing the condition of 2 years spent in Greece in the meantime.
Despite KKE being only the 4th power in Parliament, its position has actually been the most important one in this procedure. Since the beginning of the procedure, the government realized it would need KKE’s support in to secure the 200 votes needed for ratification. As the government’s proposal seems to satisfy KKE’s demands, the Communist Party will most likely vote favourably. KKE’s support is not to be taken for granted, however. On October 22, Giannis Gkiokas, the party’s representative in the inter-party committee, said that KKE “will await the constitutional backing of the criteria we set, as well as the final bill that will be presented to Parliament.”
- Elliniki Lisi (Greek Solution)
Initially, the far-right Greek Solution party had seemingly given a carte blanche to the government, suggesting it would support the proposed bill for the vote from abroad irrespective of its specifics. However, since the first meeting of the inter-party committee on 16 October, EL has stood in favor of the restrictions proposed by KKE.
Yanis Varoufakis’ party’s position on the issue revolves around the following principles: (i) vote from abroad to be accounted for in the overall result, (ii) allowing all Greeks abroad to vote (iii) creation of new constituencies for the representation of long-term emigrants, and (iv) vote in person.
Varoufakis has been vocal against SYRIZA’s initial proposal of not counting votes from abroad in the overall result, calling it a “shame”. MeRA25 has also criticized KKE’s proposal for an active Greek taxation number, arguing it links the right to vote to personal property, while it also excludes several Greek students abroad.
With a statement issued on 21 October, MeRA25 announced that its 9 MPs will vote against the bill that the government is preparing, arguing that “it is sneering Greeks abroad and circumventing their political rights.”
The final steps
Given the apparent support of all parliamentary parties but MeRA25, the bill that will give the right to vote from abroad will get 291 votes. SYRIZA and KKE, though, insisted on the need for the bill to be given constitutional backing. The need for this is a subject of debate among legal experts. According to Professor Alivizatos, “the amendment of article 54 of the constitution is not a sine qua non for the bill to be adopted.” On the other hand, Anna Irene Baka insists on the “utmost need” to amend article 54 accordingly, by adding a 4th paragraph that will specify the conditions for the vote from abroad.
Aiming at the broadest consent possible, the government has decided to move forward by taking advantage of the ongoing process of constitutional reform and proposing the amendment of Article 54 with the addition of a paragraph that specifies the conditions for voting from abroad. On Wednesday 30 October, the State Minister Mr. Giorgos Gerapetritis submitted the amendment proposal, which suggests that the right to vote from abroad can depend (i) on the possession of a taxation number and (ii) on the time of absence from the country or time of presence in the past. According to this new paragraph, the specifics of the right to vote from abroad are subject to legislation.
With the amendment of Article 54, the road is now open for the bill to be presented to Parliament, with the government planning to bring the subject to a vote before the end of 2019. “Between no solution and a half-solution, we prefer the latter,” said Mr. Kostas Skandalidis, KINAL’s representative to the inter-party committee. Katrougkalos (SYRIZA) and Gkiokas (KKE) expressed their satisfaction for the proposed amendment, but reserved their parties’ respective stances for when the bill is brought to Parliament.
This, however, does not mean that the vote from abroad is an issue resolved for good. Far from that. The implementation of the law will be challenging. Alivizatos warns that “proving presence in Greece for two years will be a source of problems,” arguing that supporting documents dating decades back might have been lost or destroyed. What is more, given that Greece has a labyrinthine bureaucracy, the state will have to make a serious effort to implement such a change, as the inclusion of several voters from abroad in the electoral procedure can prove to be complicated.
A once in a lifetime opportunity
In a country where cross-party agreement is as rare as unicorns, it seems that the issue of addressing the rights of Greek citizens living abroad will be the unlikely thing to bring almost all parties together. Apart from its symbolic significance, the extension of voting rights to Greek citizens abroad will be an upgrade of modern Greek democracy. Due consideration of the risks is important, however, and the government — in sync with parliamentary parties — should propose a solid bill that will carefully address the issue, and seek to avoid the traps that it might hide. After securing the ratification of the bill, the Greek administration will have to make sure that the law will be correctly implemented, as the issue is highly complex.
The question of voting from abroad has not been grappled for a long time, largely due to micropolitical interests and party politics. For once, Greek parties seem to have put their interests aside, finding a commonly acceptable response to historical demand. It might have taken several decades and a massive emigration wave from 2009 to 2015, but it looks like Greeks abroad will finally be able to participate in the democratic process without having to pay hundreds of euros to return home.