‘Limited’ interest among foreigners to vote is misleading, say expats

Summary

Recent headlines that suggest that Ghent’s efforts to get out the vote among non-Belgians has been unsuccessful don't tell the whole story, say local expats

‘Figures will go up’

Headlines this week in the Flemish press suggesting that foreigners in Ghent are unenthusiastic about taking part in local elections are misleading, according to figures from the city as well as expats living there. The headlines – in De Standaard and VRT, among others – followed the city’s mailing of 29,000 letters to foreigners urging them to register to vote in this autumn’s municipal elections.

In Belgium, only those with Belgian nationality are allowed to vote in regional and national elections. But many foreign residents are allowed to vote in municipal (city) elections. Any EU citizen is allowed to vote in municipal elections, as are non EU-citizens legally resident in the country for at least five years.

The papers cite that “only” 525 more foreigners living in the city have registered to vote, leading to the conclusion that a large majority of foreigners – at least those living in Ghent – aren’t interested in voting.

But that figure doesn’t include the latest registrations, only those who had registered since the last municipal election six years ago. “There have been 525 more registrations since 2012, bringing the total number of foreign residents registered to just over 1,700,” said Eline Creve of Ghent’s department of citizen’s affairs. “That figure will go up; the latest registrations still need to be processed.”

Confusion

More importantly, those 29,000 letters were sent to all resident foreigners, not just those actually eligible to vote. “It is apparently not possible to separate which non-Belgians are eligible to vote from the list,” said Creve. “Otherwise we would have sent letters only to those who have the right to vote.”

That led to some confusion, however, as the letter simply stated, “You are eligible to vote”, with instructions to turn up at the administration centre to register. Many did, only to find out that, as non-EU citizens, they did not fulfil the residency requirement.

But even EU citizens sometimes had a difficult time registering. Some report that they were turned away because they didn’t meet the five-year rule – even though they are not required to.

According to the federal interior ministry 130,649 non-Belgians across the country have registered to vote

Mihaela Topai, for instance, lives in a district of Ghent and visited her local administration centre in early July. “I was told that it’s not for me, that I had to have lived here for five years,” she says. Topai is from Romania, an EU country.

“I went home to look it up, then went back a few days later,” she says. “A different person told me the same thing, but I told her that that was not the case for EU citizens.”

A quick discussion with a colleague, and the matter was settled; Topai was allowed to register. But other Ghent expats who have taken to social media report they have faced the same situation. They are concerned that not everyone will be as persistent as Topai.

The last day to register for the 14 October election was yesterday. According to the federal interior ministry, 130,649 non-Belgians across the country have registered to vote. That is less than in 2012, when more than 141,000 had registered.

The largest number of non-Belgians registered to vote are in Brussels, where Elsene holds the record for EU citizens at 3,894 and Schaarbeek for non-EU citizens at 1,846. Antwerp comes in third for non-EU citizens registered, with 1,036.

Photo: Siska Gremmelprez/BELGA