Decoding the importance of expatriates in elections

When Anne Genetet arrived in New Delhi earlier this week it was at the tail end of a campaign that has taken her across six Asian countries and Australia, and it still was not at an end. After meetings in Delhi and a teleconference with Tamil Nadu, she left for at least one more visit, to Manila, before the final election this Sunday.

But such a schedule was only to be expected when running for the world’s largest constituency. Genetet is the candidate for President Emmanuel Macron’s new party la Republique En Marche (REM) for the 11th Constituency for Overseas Citizens for France’s lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly. This includes Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, most of Asia, other than the Middle East (which is in the 10th constituency), and Oceania, including Australia. The 11th Constituency is more than 100 times the size of the country it represents.

French elections are truly global. Unlike most former empires the French held on to chunks of former colonies, making them overseas departments and territories of France with full representation in the Parliament. A French national election, for President or Parliament, takes place from New Caledonia (two MPs) in the far southern Pacific Ocean to Saint Pierre et Miquelon (one MP) in the North Atlantic, from Reunion (seven MPs) in the Indian Ocean to Martinique (four MPs) in the Caribbean. In total there are 27 such overseas constituencies.

In 2012 another category was added for French citizens living in countries outside mainland France or the overseas areas. Many countries allow their expatriates to vote, but count their votes in the regular constituencies where they are registered back home. But France created constituencies specifically for expatriates, dividing the world into 11 parts based on estimates of their numbers. For logistical reasons national borders could not be crossed, resulting in constituencies ranging in size from the tiny (but with lots of French) 6th, comprising Liechtenstein and Switzerland, to the vastness of the 11th or the 1st, which includes the USA and Canada.

To vote in these constituencies one must be registered with French consulates, which produces some skews in the system. One of the main reasons expatriates register is to access French language schools and as a result education issues are hugely important in the expatriate constituencies. The Twitter feed for REM’s India branch duly shows Genetet discussing education over video conference with French citizens in Tamil Nadu (probably meaning Pondicherry and Karaikal).

Despite the concerns of expatriates not being quite the same as those of mainland French citizens, their constituencies are not treated differently. When they were created the existing number of 577 National Assembly seats was not expanded, so mainland French seats had to be reduced and redrawn to adjust. Senior French politicians contest the expatriate seats. In 2012 Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister, was set to run for the 1st constituency, before withdrawing to take her current job as head of the International Monetary Fund. The current incumbent of the 11th, Thierry Mariani, against who Genetet is competing, was Minister for Transport under President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Granting expatriates such voting power is part of an international trend. Italy has 12 MPs elected by expatriates, Portugal has four and Croatia and Macedonia both have three. Algeria has eight seats for expatriates, Tunisia has 18, the Dominican Republic has seven and Ecuador has six. Spain and Greece have separate consultative assemblies for their expatriates. All these are countries with substantial numbers of citizens living and working abroad and, as the Economist noted “migrants argue that fully fledged representatives defend the diaspora’s interests better.”

This represents a shift in the way expatriates are perceived. Susan Collard, in an essay on the expatriate vote in the 2012 French elections, notes that “the legacy of the émigrés following the 1789 Revolution meant that leaving French soil was seen as betrayal.” But today the pendulum has swung far opposite and expatriates are as seen “as strategic populations who ‘must be kept close to the nation’s bosom’ because of the geopolitical stake they represent for the French state and its influence in the world.”

Sarkozy was a particular fan of French expatriates, and pushed the creation of the new constituencies for them. “France needs you, your labour, your intelligence and your enthusiasm… Come back, because together we can make France once again a great nation, where anything is possible,” he declaimed. The success of expatriates was seen as a source of national pride – and a way to rebuke hidebound national institutions. Expatriate energies, he hoped, could reinvigorate France, and what better way to channel them by giving them seats in Parliament.

This rhetoric is much the same as used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his regular wooing of Indian expatriates. From his enthusiastic participation in the Pravasi Bharati Divas celebrations of non-resident Indians (NRIs) to his happy engagement with them on visits abroad – and the adulation he gets in return – the PM’s appreciation of NRIs is clear. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), under Sushma Swaraj, has also shown its commitment to NRIs, most impressively in the evacuation of Indians from the war zones of Yemen.

It might help that NRIs, like expatriates the world over, tend to fall on the right-wing end of the political spectrum. Historically French expatriates supported right-wing parties, which is one reason why the right-wing Sarkozy was so keen to push the creation of constituencies for them. Many were entrepreneurs who had fled France’s restrictive business environment and liked Sarkozy’s plans to challenge this. Others were from groups like French military veterans who settled in the overseas posts they served in and were inclined to be nationalistic.

But perhaps the key point, for India as much as France, is that getting enrolled to be active in expatriate affairs is not automatic, but a self-selecting process that favours those inclined to be nationalistic. The actual profile of expatriates is more varied, including younger people who are abroad for professional or academic reasons, or migrant workers, but they are less likely to put in the time and effort required to vote. As it happens, in the 2012 French parliamentary elections enough of the second category did enrol to upset right-wing calculations and hand the majority of the seats to the left.

The real objections to NRI voting have come from the Election Commission of India (ECI). In 1985 the Times of India reported that the ECI had dismissed the idea of NRIs voting as “far fetched”. The ECI pointed out that India required voters strictly to be present in their constituency, with exceptions only allowed for senior dignitaries like the President of India, vice-president, governors and MPs and service members like diplomats.

Wider use of postal ballots was not possible since the norm was for just 20-25 days to pass before the last date possible for withdrawal of candidates, and hence the printing of ballot papers, and the actual election. That period was too short for postal ballots to be sent out and received. It isn’t too hard to read between the lines a not unjustified plea from the ECI: “our job is hard enough, don’t make it worse by forcing us to deal with postal votes.”

In time the ECI has become more accommodating, not least due to several cases demanding voting rights filed by NRIs (Nagender Chindan, Naresh Kumar Hanchate and Dr.Shamsheer VP in three separate cases). Today the ECI does allow, with various restrictions, the use of proxies or postal votes for casting ballots, and some voting by NRIs. But this can only happen if they are present to vote in their home constituencies. Voting at Indian consulates abroad or, even more, an online voting system on the lines of what is used in the French elections, would empower NRI voters far more.
But consultations with political parties (as detailed in a document on the ECI website) have shown very mixed feelings about such possibilities. The Bahujan Samaj Party and Communist Party of India were dubious about postal and, even more, internet voting, which they felt could be hacked. The CPI (M) argued, reasonably enough, that special voting facilities for NRIs should also be extended to Indians in India, but not resident in their home constituencies. The BJP was, predictably, most in favour of NRI voting, ideally by proxies, though it felt that online voting should be explored. The Congress didn’t favour proxies, but was strongly in favour of voting being allowed at Indian consulates.

Not surprisingly, earlier this year the Cabinet deferred consideration of proxy and electronic voting for NRIs. The protests that the ECI is facing over use of electronic voting machines probably means that any further technological leaps will be resisted strongly. And yet, it should be noted that in some ways the French model for separate overseas constituencies simplifies the process significantly. By taking away the need to consider NRI voters in each mainland constituency, it passes the burden from regular ECI officials to a specialised team whose responsibility could be taken, or shared, with the MEA.

This is how it happens in France where the substantial cost of running the expatriate elections is shared by the French foreign ministry and the home ministry, which runs the regular elections. In 2012 the elections were marred by problems with the online voting system and a very low turnout. This low turnout is a general problem with French parliamentary elections, where considerable voting fatigue sets in between the required multiple rounds. It remains to be seen how the system works this time.

Expatriate voting could face other problems. Most countries have not really considered what it means to have people resident in them voting for elections in another country. Canada has expressed strong reservations about this, but it’s not clear it would, or even could, prevent it happening. It should also be noted that there are simpler ways than direct election to represent expatriate views. The French Senate, for example, has had indirectly appointed expatriate senators for decades and there is also the model of a consultative assembly of expatriates followed by Spain, Greece and France itself.

Yet direct voting brings a power and legitimacy of its own. Contesting an election across countries, and even continents, is hardly easy, and winning will bring its own hassles. Genetet, for example, will have to commute between her home in Singapore and Paris when the National Assembly is in session. Yet she and other candidates across the world have thrown themselves into the process and it is hard not to respect that. And in a larger sense, the respect that France shows for its expatriates by allowing them to vote and be represented in Parliament, might yet be a model for India and its NRIs.

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