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Rights - Hervé Andres

The exclusion of voting rights for foreigners:  key contradiction between sovereignty and democracy

Hervé Andres

I would first of all like to thank the organisers for asking me to take part in this symposium, of which the title is fairly ambitious:  “foundation of a new civilisation”.  This is exactly what it is all about:  a new civilisation that is in the process of being established.  And in what is being established, the political dimension must be addressed.

My intervention aims to contribute to a political reflection about a new democratic civilisation.  Starting with the question of the right to vote for foreigners, I would like to open the way for a real democratic reformation that goes beyond the principle of sovereignty.

Firstly, I am going to start my intervention with an inventory that shows that foreigners are denied the right to vote on a global scale.  Even if there are numerous exceptions, they are limited.  My second point will be to show why this issue is important to democracy.  Then I will look at the problem caused by the fundamental contradiction between sovereignty and democracy.  And finally I would like to touch on some areas of theoretical reflection for a new democracy.

1) The current situation

So, to start with, an initial assessment:  in general, foreign residents, on a global scale, do not have the right to vote. It is a general rule, with many, but very limited exceptions.  Two out of three countries in the world do not grant the right to vote to foreigners.  And a third of the world’s countries grant the right to vote to certain categories of foreigners, but only in some elections.  It is noteworthy all the same:  one in three countries worldwide.  I am not going to go into specifics here, but we can easily distinguish some models quite quickly:

In around forty countries, all foreign residents, after certain duration of residence, can vote in some elections (often municipal elections, but sometimes in intermediate level or national elections).  For example, in Ireland, since a very long time, foreigners can vote in municipal elections.  And in Uruguay, foreigners can vote in all elections.

Secondly, some countries only grant the right to vote to a certain category of foreign residents, based on certain criteria.  The United Kingdom gives full voting rights to all Commonwealth citizens (in general, those from ancient British colonies), which represents the majority, but not the totality of foreigners who live in the United Kingdom.  The European Union instituted a comparable system, that requires all EU countries to give European citizens the right to vote, in other words, to all those who have a nationality of one of the countries in the EU.  For example, in Italy or in France, only European citizens have the right to vote, and only in the municipal and European elections.  In Spain, the criteria is based upon reciprocity.  If the foreign country in question grants Spanish citizens with the right to vote, their foreigners will in turn also be granted the right to vote in the municipal elections in Spain.  And as most Latin American countries allow foreigners to vote, well, most Latinos have the municipal vote in Spain.  But the Moroccans do not (for the time being anyway), and neither do the majority of Africans.

So this is an opening modality: some countries grant voting rights to all foreigners, while other countries only give the right to certain categories of foreigners.

Second opening modality:  election level. Lots of countries only grant the right to vote to foreigners in local elections.  It is a kind of half-solution, consisting of a tactful treatment towards national sovereignty, while opening the doors to local citizens.  I personally think that this could be an interesting avenue to explore in practical terms – it is better than nothing, but it also imposes new types of discrimination, and it is a way of by-passing the core problem without facing the real issues surrounding it.  In short, a few countries let foreigners vote only in local elections, but there are nevertheless 25 countries where foreigners can vote in national elections...

The fact remains that the majority of countries in the world, including those that present themselves as democratic, consider that in order to have the right to vote, you must have the nationality of the country in question.  And foreigners are excluded.

And in addition, no country in the world applies a strict equality of political rights between its citizens and the foreigners that live there.  Even if they have the right to vote in practically the same conditions, there are exceptions regarding eligibility.  In New Zealand, foreigners can vote in national elections, but cannot be elected.

The facts and current regulations take over, especially in minds and representations, but the paradigm of the exclusion of foreigners in the political sphere dominates all.  It seems completely “normal” (I am putting this word in inverted commas) to deprive foreigners of political rights.  It seems normal.  It seems to be the general rule.  And a foreigner with voting rights seems to be an exception, certainly a current topic, but limited in scope.

2)  A problem of democracy

Though, and this will be my second point, the right to vote is imperative to democracy.

This proposal of “the right to vote is important for democracy” does not just happen by itself.  It is not so easy.  For the Greeks, ancient democracy favoured pulling names out of a hat as a way of designating people to assume public functions.  This drawing of names has the advantage of placing citizens on a strictly equal basis.  Every single person has an equal chance of being drawn.  This kind of nomination could also be very useful in certain situations.

Voting is a way of making a decision, which allows to either designate representatives (this is representative democracy), or it allows to decide directly (we answer “yes” or “no” to a question, for example, and this is direct democracy).

The most important point is that voting is a decision tool for a community.

If there is no community, there is no vote.  If I am all alone and I ask myself whether I want to go to the seaside or the mountains, I make a decision and I go.  But if I am with my family, and if we are deciding whether to go to the sea or the mountains, we will discuss it and reach a collective decision, perhaps by consensus, or perhaps we will reach a decision through a kind of vote.

What is important to remember is that voting is only useful when there is an entire community voting.  And politics only works in the plurality.  As long as there are many people, men and women can be political agents.  It is because we are numerous; it is because there are many of us that we must find ways of working well together as a community.  And because there are decisions to be made, we must comprise some sort of decision-making mechanism for large numbers of people.  And for this, the Greeks had studied the right problem.  Whether it be one person who makes a decision (the king, who can become a tyrant), whether it be a small number of people who decide (the richest, the wisest, the best), whether it be everybody, let everyone be part of the decision (and it is there that we see the invention of democracy, the power of the people).

It is here that we see the main purpose of voting.  A function that can be described as instrumental.  The vote is a decision-making tool.

But there is another purpose of voting, which in my opinion is more important and of a symbolic nature.  In politics, like in many other domains, symbolism is very important.

The ritual of voting shows what is at stake during a vote, but it is not the practical result (the “yes”  or “no”, “Obama” or “McCain”), but it is also a great symbolic process that makes a community become aware of itself.

The vote is what shows that we belong to a community.  If I vote, I am a member of this community: the political community.  If I cannot vote, I am not a member of this community.  If I cannot vote, what is my status?  What is my link to others in the community?

Thus, the question of delimitation is at stake, and therefore a definition of community itself.  To outline the boundaries of the political community in such and such a way, is to devise, one way or another, this political community.  The political community is not a community like any other.  It is not something natural, nor is it given by nature.  It is a certain type of link that is forged between its members.  It is a mutual recognition of men and women as political players in their shared destiny.  What defines them is their freedom and equality.  It is not a simple aggregation of individuals living side by side.  Politics is the space in which players look to bypass violence in order to resolve conflict.

Fundamentally, denying foreigners the right to vote boils down to them being excluded from the political community.  And that boils down to the political community being defined in a certain way.  Conversely, giving foreigners the right to vote allows them to be included in the political community.  And that subsequently defines the political community in a different way.

Let’s look at these two methods.  On one hand we have the exclusion of foreigners.  On the other hand we have their inclusion.  It is here that I find a problem with the link between sovereignty and democracy.

3) Sovereignty vs. democracy

First of all, the traditional concept of excluding foreigners from participating in elections.  On the basis of what?  On the basis of nationality.  What is nationality?  It is an ambiguous term that poses problems when we switch from one language to another.  There are 2 dimensions.  On one side it is a collective identity that is linked to a specific group: a nation.  In this sense, nationality has almost a cultural meaning.  On the other side, it is a legal status that links a person to a sovereign state.  It is this second meaning that is significant in the problem.  In fact, if the right to vote is reserved only to those who have the nationality of the country, what will count is not the cultural identity but the fact of having, or not having, the right nationality from a legal standpoint.  If you have Italian nationality you have the right to vote in Italian elections, even if you are of African origin and do not feel Italian, and even if other Italians do not consider you to be Italian.  The problem of identity is another issue altogether.  From a legal standpoint regarding the right to vote, all that counts is legal status.

But from a legal point of view, what is nationality?  What is legal status?  A set of rules and regulations that tie you to a sovereign state.  Is it a contract between two people on equal footing?  Not at all.  Nationality is imposed upon you right from the moment of birth, based on your personal situation (place of birth, nationality of your parents).  Secondly, contingent upon the evolution of your situation, you can claim the nationality of another country.  The state is never under any obligation to grant it to you though.  It is therefore absolutely not freedom that prevails.  Your nationality is decided by chance at birth, and it is still the state that imposes everything upon you whether it is acquiring or relinquishing your nationality.  Moreover, it is extremely difficult to voluntarily renounce your original nationality.  We have seen, during the 20th century, what happens when you make human beings depend on a sovereign state.  Millions of people found themselves stateless.  And the worst example of this is Nazi Germany, that as a sovereign state, was completely within its rights to strip millions of Jews of their nationality and leave them without any rights at all.  This was also the case with the Vichy Regime in France.  Completely legal.

Thus, nationality places the human being in a position of total dependence when faced with the arbitrary of the state.  Of course, not all states are Nazi-run.  But the fact that a state can become Nazi-run, and indeed many states drifted in this direction and continue to do so today, shows that there is a real danger for people who have to depend on the arbitrary of state for their rights.

The sovereignty of the state is embodied under the notion of nationality.  What is sovereignty?  Etymologically, it is the principle of superiority.  The sovereign is superior.  It is someone who imposes their will.  It is the principle of legitimisation of monarchical power, and bizarrely managed to mutate in democracies invented during the last 2 or 3 centuries.

The sovereignty of the sovereign has become the people’s sovereignty, or the national sovereignty.  It was thought that modern democracy was the sovereignty of the people, and within a national framework, a national sovereignty.  It would then be the people who were sovereign.  The law would be an expression of general will.  You know this fiction, and I do not deny that part of it is true, but only part of it.

But if it is the people who are sovereign, how is it that part of itself is excluded?  Indeed, if foreigners are excluded from being sovereign, it is the sovereignty of the state (that is translated by the definition of nationality, by borders between those who are there and those who are not), that is a prerequisite for the constitution of the people.  It is therefore not the people who are sovereign, but rather the state, in other words, the organisation of a minority who will impose their power on a majority.

4)  Democracy beyond sovereignty

To finish, let’s examine another way of understanding the political  community, this time including foreigners.  The idea is that without having the nationality of the state, foreigners are still citizens, in other words, recognised as political players in the country where they are residing.

Faced with the concept of nationality, we can refuse the concept of citizenship.  Faced with the concept of sovereignty, we can refuse the concept of democracy.

“Citizenship”.  This word raises even more issues when we switch from one language to another.  In English, “citizenship” has lost practically all autonomous meaning, and means nationality as a legal status, linking a person to the state.  In Italian, I think “cittadinanza” is equally used in the same legal status context, while “nazionalità” exists and can be used to mean legal status.  In Spanish and French, two different terms are used (nacionalidad and ciudadanía, nationalité and citoyenneté).

The idea of citizenship being disconnected from nationality corresponds to a return back to the purely political meaning of the term citizenship.  It refers to the city (Roman term), and therefore to « polis » (Greek term).  Citizenship is the participation in civic life.  The city isn’t the town, the village or the urban agglomeration.  The city is the political arena.

To recognise that foreigners (regardless of where they are from and regardless of whether they still have ties with their country of origin) are members of the political community.  We need to define this political community, not through where people are born, and not through the rules of the arbitrary of the state, but through participation in the political arena.

From the minute that foreigners arrive and start participating in the political arena, from the minute they are concerned about the fate of this community, they must respect the laws (and as is often mentioned, they must pay their taxes).  So it seems logical to recognise their right to vote, which is, in terms of policy making, instrumental and symbolic.

To go in this direction is to reconnect with the Universalist and inevitably insurgent potential of democracy.  Democracy is still trying to get out of the instituted framework.  It cannot be confined to a formalist definition.  On the contrary.  It should not be forgotten that the term was originally used as an insult, to describe a form of power that govern those who have no right to govern (in particular those who are not rich).  Democracy is originally a rupture in natural order.  It still implies a questioning of authority.  It has never ended, or began.  Instead it is a horizon, a line of conduct, a dissenting requirement.  And notably, the history of democracy is the story of a struggle for the rights of those who are excluded.  Universal suffrage is one of the materializations of this story where the limits had to be pushed even further – the limits of domination – so that the working-class, the illiterate, the poor, women, colonised natives, slaves and ex-slaves, the young, etc. could vote.

I think that this story continues with the fight for foreigners’ right to vote.

In theoretical terms, the issue of voting rights for foreigners is telling of the dead end that democracy is enclosed in.  And in keeping with the formal definition, telling of the principle of sovereignty.   Basically, the concept of sovereignty is a concept of domination, imposition of one’s will.  The fiction of the sovereign people is today finding its limits.  During the 20th century, sovereignty of the state allowed the biggest massacres in the history of humanity in compliance with the formal rules of the state.  In the 21st century, state sovereignty is not protecting people against the ravages of globalisation.  Multinationals impose their laws, and sovereignty only acts in purely repressive aspects, in order to make the existence of millions of migrants on the planet even more precarious.

I know very well that certain states are trying, notably in South America (I’m thinking about Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela for example), to build real democracies by returning to an ideal of popular sovereignty.  I observe these experiments with interest and admiration.  But I don’t see how, ultimately, the principle of sovereignty (even popular sovereignty) is compatible with the demands of democracy, insofar as it reflects the imposition of will, of the will of one.  The fiction of the sovereign people has without a doubt allowed us to move forward.  But I think the future of democracy rests in the recognition of the plural nature of humanity and its particular desires.  The necessity of constructing together, whether it is on a village, regional or global scale, can only be considered from a decidedly Universalist prospective.  The right for foreigners to vote, with no limitations, seems to me to be one of the essential elements needed for future democracy.





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