Citizenship and Voting Rights

2013. március 27. 10:46

After the breakup of the communist regimes, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe rediscovered their kin-minorities and diasporas. With the sudden transition to democracy came a rebirth and re-definition of national identity, writes the director of the Research Institute for Hungarian Communities Abroad, Zoltán Kántor. In practical terms, the author tells us, this meant national governments reaching out anew to ethnic kin living outside the borders. And this gesture abroad, this new posture, was reflected in political discourse, law and new constitutions across the region.

2013. március 27. 10:46

The salience of the nations and the issue of national minorities – contrary to the expectations of the European decision-makers and scholars of transitology – became a major focus of the politics of these countries and that inevitably caused tensions, particularly in those areas of the map where the boundaries of the state and the nation are not congruent.

In the decades that followed, this has been a persistent topic in the region and several institutions have spoken out, including the Venice Commission, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the High Commissioner on National Minorities. All of these monitored and commented on the state-diaspora relationship.

Soon a trend emerged in the prevailing perception that particular states do not adequately protect or offer sufficient rights to kin-minorities. And soon kin-states began to offer citizenship on a preferential basis to members of the national group living outside the borders, and parliaments passed laws supporting co-nationals living in other states. In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe this is the rule rather than the exception.

Many countries in the region, for example, have some form of dual citizenship in their legal systems. For example, Slovenia allows dual citizenship, and each citizen has full suffrage. Slovenians living abroad can cast their votes either by regular mail or through Slovenian diplomatic posts. Same with Croatia, which allows dual citizenship and voting rights. Croatian citizens living in a foreign country form a special electoral unit and can vote for a list of up to fourteen candidates. Serbia’s Act on Citizenship of 2004 also extends the possibility of citizenship to Serbians living abroad. According to the 2007 amendment to the Act on Citizenship, a member of the Serb nation who is not residing in the territory of Serbia and those of other nationalities or ethnic groups from the territory of Serbia are allowed to become Serbian citizens without releasing their other citizenship. Dual citizens have the right to take part in the general elections if they are permanent Serbian residents or if they live temporarily abroad. In Romania, dual citizenship is permitted without restrictions even if the citizen lives abroad permanently. Each citizen has the right to vote, though to be an elected official one must have a Romanian domicile according to the constitution.

Dual citizenship in Austria is governed by the Federal Law on Austrian Citizenship of 1985, which restricts the ability to acquire another citizenship (perhaps due to historical reasons). An Austrian citizen loses his or her citizenship if they apply for another State’s citizenship, though there are certain exemptions to this rule. Dual citizens are allowed to take part in the Austrian general elections as each Austrian citizen is entitled to a vote according to the Federal Law on Parliamentary elections of 1992.

According to the constitution of the Ukraine there shall only be a single form of citizenship. It follows that when a Ukrainian citizen voluntarily acquires a citizenship of another state, he or she loses his or her Ukrainian citizenship. However there are certain other cases – for example, acquiring citizenship by birth – where Ukraine treats dual citizens as if they were Ukrainian citizens only. Ukrainian citizens living abroad have the right to vote.

Due to a controversial amendment in 2010, the current Slovakian legal framework discourages dual citizenship. If a Slovakian citizen voluntarily acquires a citizenship of another state, they automatically lose their Slovakian citizenship. Slovakian citizens residing abroad have the right to vote in general elections.

The Western European nations of France, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Finland, and Portugal make it possible for citizens living abroad to vote in their elections.

Hungary has one of the largest minorities in Europe. There are about 2.2 million Hungarians living outside the borders of Hungary in the neighboring states, and there are likely millions living all over the world. That’s why Hungary remains one of the most proactive kin-states in the region. Hungary amended its law on citizenship in 2010, making it possible for former Hungarian citizens and their descendants to acquire Hungarian citizenship without having to live in Hungary. Before the amendment, dual citizenship was only possible if the applicant moved to Hungary. The amendment now allows those who speak the Hungarian language and are either prior citizens or descendants of Hungarians to apply for citizenship. All those who obtain Hungarian citizenship are eligible to vote in the national elections (regardless of their place of residence). As of the end of 2012, more than 370,000 have applied for Hungarian citizenship, and it is expected that in the next few years this trend will continue.

The law governing the electoral system is still under discussion, but according to the most recent versions, the Hungarian electoral system is a mixed one. Citizens who reside in Hungary have two votes: one for territorial candidates, and one for the national list. Hungarian citizens who do not reside in Hungary may only vote for the national list. Due to the electoral system, analysts say that voters abroad influence only one or at most two of the mandates. In a Parliament of 200 members this may impact the seat count, but it is less likely to change the overall outcome of the elections.

Some say that by granting citizenship and offering the ability to vote in the general elections to individuals living outside the border, Hungary has addressed a long-standing wish of Hungarians living abroad. Being able to cast a vote in the general elections, Hungarians living abroad feel they will have some say in the government in Budapest and its policies toward the kin-minority living in the neighboring states or the diaspora living all over the word.

Nevertheless, the relationship between the Hungarian State and Hungarians abroad remain a controversial issue in Hungary. Debates between the Left and Right concerning this issue stretch back to the mid-nineties. These tensions hit their peak with a referendum on dual citizenship in 2004, which saw a campaign by the Hungarian Socialist Party opposing citizenship for Hungarians abroad. After the new electoral law passed in 2011, which granted voting rights to citizens living abroad, the head of the Socialist Party apologized in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca, which is home to a significant number of ethnic Hungarians, for the opposing campaign. Clearly, opposition parties in Hungary have recognized the significance of the vote that will come from abroad and are adjusting their positions for the upcoming 2014 elections.

There are many reasons Hungary made it possible for citizens living abroad to vote, but the basic idea is that citizens have a right to have a voice in government. The kinship thinking says the extension of the right to vote is an expression of national solidarity. Hungarians who have ties to their homeland through citizenship should have the ability to vote regardless of where they reside, be it in the neighboring states or somewhere further abroad. There is no legitimate reason to prohibit citizens from voting because they live in other states, and this has been the European tendency over the last several years. This is especially the case when considering economic migration throughout Europe. The increasing numbers of citizens who live and work in countries other than their homeland should not have to lose ties with the home state.

Finally, if Hungarians living in the neighboring states and the rest of the world have the ability to vote, this will allow the Hungarian government and political parties to live up to their duty laid out in the constitution: “Hungary shall bear responsibility for the fate of Hungarians living beyond its borders.”

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