In Europe, a Voting-Rights Debate ; Belgium Is Considering a Bill That Would Let Noncitizen Immigrants Cast Ballots in Local Elections

Article excerpt

In a roadside gas station 25 miles west of the Belgium capital, a handful of truckers are sipping hot coffee and loudly discussing politics.

"In the big cities, the immigrants already run the city councils," one of the men says, in a statement marked by equal parts of hyperbole and resentment. "Now that they are going to give them all the right to vote, they will take over the smaller towns, too. Pretty soon, we won't be the boss in our own country anymore."

Belgian plans to let noncitizen immigrants vote in local elections are fanning the latest controversy as Europe wrestles with the issues of immigration, citizenship, and national identity.

Proponents say the change will bring Belgium into line with other parts of Europe - such as Sweden, Finland, Ireland, and the Netherlands, where immigrants without European Union (EU) citizenship already have the right to cast ballots in local polls.

Some EU member states see such rights as a way to compensate for earlier failed integration policies, says Anoush Desboghessian, an analyst with the Brussels-based European Network Against Racism (ENAR). "Europe is changing," she says. "There is more and more diversity of cultures and languages. But immigrants remain excluded from society."

Policymakers in Italy, Germany, and France are also debating voting rights for noncitizen immigrants. But, as in Belgium, the issue is controversial.

"Passing this law goes against the will of the majority of the people," says Philip Dewinter, the political leader of the far- right Flemish Bloc. "This is a permanent message to foreigners that Belgium is a land of milk and honey, where they have rights but no duties. It will attract more foreigners - poor foreigners without any added value for our society."

But to Turkish-born socialist senator Fatma Pehlivan, voting rights are essential to immigrants' integration in society. "The people who will benefit from this measure are mostly first- generation immigrants - people who have come here in the '60s, and have contributed to this country's economy. To them, this is a positive signal that they are part of society, that their vote counts."

Immigrant voting rights were first discussed in Belgium in the late 1970s, when it became clear that the hundreds of thousands of Muslim guest workers from Turkey and Northern Africa, who had moved to Europe in the boom years of the '60s, would never go back. Local voting rights were seen as a way to give them a say in how their communities - most in the inner city - were governed.

With the more pressing matter of economic hardship on the table in the '80s, and the electoral rise of the anti-immigrant far right in the '90s, the idea was put on hold in Belgium, only to be revived by the current left-leaning administration of socialist and liberals.

Under the proposal, now making its way through the Belgian parliament, noncitizen immigrants from non-EU countries who have lived in Belgium legally for at least five years - and are therefore considered to be sufficiently integrated - would be permitted to cast their ballots in local elections. As a special condition, they would have to register to vote (which Belgian nationals do not have to do, since the country has compulsory voting), and sign a written declaration that they will respect the Belgian laws and constitution - a provision that was added as a safeguard against Islamic fundamentalism. …