Should foreigners be allowed to vote in ‘Hulabula-land’?
Who should or should not be allowed to vote? It’s a question that sits at the heart of the concept of democracy and one that is far from settled.
Excluded from parliamentary elections, many foreigners living in Denmark have the right to vote in council and European elections – EU citizens residing in Denmark are given the vote automatically while others have to wait three years.
Not everyone is happy to have foreigners meddling in their affairs, however. Recently, a Dansk Folkeparti (DF) mayoral candidate in Vejle caused a media stir when he told a local newspaper that he thought it was absurd that foreigners could have a say so quickly after arriving in the country.
“If I moved to some ‘Hulabula-land’ in Africa I don’t think I would be in a position to make a political decision and participate in elections,” Holger Gorm Petersen told Lokalavisen Budstikken Vejle. “As an immigrant and new to the country, I imagine that there are many other things that I would be concerned with instead of politics.”
Petersen was roundly condemned by all political parties except his own. DF’s immigration spokesperson Martin Henriksen rushed to Petersen’s defence and confirmed that the mayoral candidate was simply voicing the long-held party policy that voting rights should be reserved for Danes.
“The integration process is about becoming Danish,” he told The Copenhagen Post, adding that it was problematic that there were people living in Denmark who couldn’t speak Danish but had the right to vote in elections.
“If you come to Denmark from a foreign country the goal ought be becoming a Danish citizen," Henriksen said. "You can’t be a citizen of two countries. So if they want to vote, they need to make a decision to commit to Denmark and become Danish.”
Mayor: DF's idea is "pathetic"
DF’s view is far from widely held, and Copenhagen’s mayor Frank Jensen (Socialdemokraterne) quickly condemned DF for being hypocritical.
“Dansk Folkeparti is the first to demand that foreigners should integrate, but then they tell foreign residents that they might as well stop engaging in the country they have arrived in, because they won’t have any influence anyway,” Jensen told The Copenhagen Post. “It’s pathetic and it doesn’t make sense. International workers, who create many jobs, already find that it is hard to integrate in Denmark. It would be incredibly counterproductive to send a signal that they are not welcome by removing their right to vote.”
But does having a vote in the council elections really help foreigners find a place in Denmark? Most of those that The Copenhagen Post spoke to seemed to think so.
US citizen Camryn Andersen has lived in Denmark for the past six years and argues that her right to vote locally encouraged her to forge closer ties with her community.
“I made a real effort to educate myself on the different parties and candidates and the values that I was interested in,” Andersen said, adding that she could still see why some Danes might feel reluctant to give foreigners a say.
“Though I'm loathe to agree with DF, I understand and relate to any Dane who is uncomfortable with a foreigner such as myself being given the privilege of voting in any of their elections," Andersen said. "I haven't even mastered Danish yet – so maybe it’s rather dubious whether you could consider me a 'responsible' voter.”
Juliet Birch voted in local elections for the first time in 2003. Originally from Uganda, she moved to the UK in 1999 to escape political instability caused by election rigging. After meeting her Danish husband, they moved to Denmark together in 2000.
“It was a very profound experience to vote in Denmark,” she said.” I left Uganda for the UK because of political insecurity, so when I voted it was the first time in my life where it actually meant something and could actually lead to change. I remember feeling quite emotional, even though it was only a local election out in Ballerup.”
Lucy Gabrielsen married a Danish man and ended up deciding to settle in Denmark in 2009. Originally from Swaziland, she has also lived in South Africa and the UK. But now it’s especially important she makes her voice heard at this autumn's council elections as her husband is running as a Venstre candidate in Åbenrå.
“There’s a much better opportunity to have an influence in Denmark because of the close community interaction and because there is less anonymity," Gabrielsen said. "Here, things are more serious and personal so we feel we can make a difference.”
The EU needs a more modern approach to democracy
Tim Haigh is head of group for global monitoring for environment and security at the European Environment Agency in central Copenhagen. Haigh discovered that he and many of his colleagues from EU countries were unable to vote as they are not on the Folkeregister, as is the case for many staff members in international organisations operating in Denmark.
EU law demands that EU residents should be allowed to vote in local and EU elections in their country of residence, so Haigh complained that the laws were incompletely implemented in Denmark. Eventually, an exception was granted for those few people working in Denmark who weren’t on the Folkeregister.
Having lived and worked in a number of different European countries, Haigh argues that getting the full experience of living in a country requires taking an interest, contributing and expressing a point of view, regardless of whether one is a minority.
“Wherever I move to, I want to ensure that I have a full experience and not live on the edge of society. And the fact is that no matter where you live you’re going to be influenced by your surroundings," Haigh said. "So on the one hand, I want to get involved with the dialogue locally and be enriched by that experience, but I also may be able to offer perspectives that sometimes would otherwise be ignored or overlooked.”
Haigh is interested in the democratic problems faced by the EU. He argues that there remain important questions about whether citizens in Europe do in fact have sufficient influence on the local, national and supranational levels given the increasing levels of transnational mobility among European workers.
Haigh is especially troubled by the fact that workers who choose to work in another country can quickly lose their right to vote in national elections in their home country. Problems such as these illustrate the need to think about easier and more straightforward voting systems that encourage and ensure as many people as possible are involved in democratic processes.
“This year is the 'European Year of Citizens' but we have a system in which people leave Denmark and lose their right to vote even if they’ve only moved across the water to Malmö, and I think that’s a shame. We could introduce a more flexible system that allows people to check in and check out of countries more easily, so that if they are moving and living in different countries, they can make a choice about where to place their vote,” Haigh said.
“After all, democracy is about choice and is strengthened by participation, not weakened.”
Sigrid Neergaard contributed to the reporting of this story
Correction: This story initially stated that non-citizens must have lived in Denmark for four years before being allowed to vote in local elections. Parliament last year voted to shorten the period to three years. The change has taken effect and applies to the November 2013 elections. The change, however, has not been updated on certain public information websites, including borger.dk.