The Right to Vote: Commonwealth Migrants
The least we can expect is that the Electoral Commission or the Electoral Supervisory Commission dispel the clouds. It could recognise a duty of transparency by providing some clear statistics about contractual Commonwealth migrant workers: how many overall and the constituency distribution of those eligible and who have been registered to vote
Photograph: Rehman Asad/Barcroft Images
By Jan Arden
Nobody needs reminding that the right to vote for every Mauritian citizen, independently of means, gender or religious beliefs, was a long and arduous battle in the lead-up to independence. In those days, inspired perhaps by Commonwealth or British traditions, or by some form of reciprocity and a perceived need to foster amicable relations with the outgoing colonial master when our economic conditions were so shaky, the acquired voting right of citizens was extended as a privilege to Commonwealth citizens having resided in Mauritius for more than a couple of years.
Whatever the reasoning behind such a measure, it was indeed a privilege, not a right and since it might only have concerned a few dozen expatriates, nobody gave much thought to the privilege being thus granted. It is high time for the question to be revisited dispassionately in the light of our long-term interests rather than through the narrow prism of local politics.
When America first gained independence, the right to vote was limited to White males who were at least 21 years old and owned property. Over time, those voting rights in federal, state, and local elections have been extended to all Americans who are either a native-born U.S. citizen or have acquired citizenship through their parents. The holders of a Green Card (permanent residency) are excluded from federal voting as a rule.
Throughout most if not all of the EU countries, voting at general elections is similarly a right reserved for national citizens while the vote at regional or local elections has varying national provisions to allow immigrants some say in how the facilities in their town or region are managed. Even in Denmark, arguably one of the most liberal European state, 10% of the country’s adult population will be unable to vote as they do not have Danish citizenship. As well as being unable to vote, those without Danish citizenship cannot stand for election to a parliamentary position, work as a police officer or a fire-fighter, or represent Denmark at sporting events. But migrant settlers in Denmark, Sweden and Finland for instance are authorised to vote at local elections after three years of permanent residency. Other EU countries add some further conditions for voting at local elections.
The situation in UK
The UK therefore is a quirky exception to the rule that only national citizens are allowed to vote at a country’s general elections and this owes much to its history since early 20th century of considering as British subjects all residents of Britain, Ireland and its sprawling Empire and this was pursued after the Second World War through the establishment of the Commonwealth of former British colonies. So long as the former Commonwealth migrants and settlers in the UK were a few hundred thousand at most, this was not a matter of concern. But the sharp rise of Commonwealth immigration through a more “open door” policy, coupled with the uncontrolled influx into the UK of East Europeans through the enlargement of the EU, brought the question of non-citizens residing in UK voting and deciding on the internal UK government policies to the fore. According to MigrationWatch, a record four million people born abroad were eligible to vote in May 2015 after a decade of such uncontrolled immigration and that figure included up to a million from the Commonwealth who do not have British citizenship.
In 2008, a report commissioned by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for changes in the rules to prevent Commonwealth nationals without UK citizenship from voting in general elections. But the report has never been acted upon by either Labour or Tory governments, eyeing warily the impact such a change might have in several swing or marginal constituencies. It is worth mentioning that few if any Commonwealth country reciprocate the privilege to Britons and that in certain cases like India, migrant workers settled say in Bengaluru from Bihar would find it most difficult to vote in their resident state.
Millions of hard-working British citizens who came to the UK from abroad (from South Asia and East Africa but also large communities of Irish, Nigerians, South Africans, Australians, and East Europeans) may find the kind of rhetoric profoundly alienating but the question of voting eligibility of non-UK citizens has basically remained unaddressed even though subdued after Brexit. Concomitant sociological shifts in migrant profiles and economic status have eroded Labour’s traditional hold on the immigrant-origin electorate and the likes of Rishi Sunak, James Cleverly, Akwasi Kwarteng or Suella Braverman are now prominent figures of the Tory party, citing them as stellar examples of integration and achievement and of its own ideological turn-around.
The Mauritius context
Voter eligibility in Mauritius after half a century of decolonisation should no longer be conditional or driven by decisions framed at independence on colonial hangovers of the Empire or when the matter concerned a few dozen expatriates. The founding fathers of the nation could not have foreseen the rise of textile industry and manufacturing in the eighties, generating such employment opportunities that massive levels of foreign contractual workers had to be encouraged into the country, mostly from Commonwealth countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Nepal. Mauritius Statistics indicates that this figure has hovered at slightly above 30,000 prior to and throughout the pandemic years, the bulk in textiles and manufacturing, food and construction sectors, and most of them with reportedly more than the minimum two years of residency for voting privileges at our general elections.
At these levels, there has been legitimate concern that their vote could have been determinant in some swing constituencies where the electoral outcome has been decided by a few hundred votes. Moreover, allegations have been rife of organised registration and “bussing” of migrant workers to vote at our 2019 general elections and these have been raised, it seems, by the judicial inquiry as one of the possible motives for the assassination of its own disenchanted MSM chief agent Kistnen. Since then and despite the Magistrate’s Report having been submitted to the ODPP and recommendations made by the latter for further Police action since more than a year, there has been no visible progress in any of the sombre aspect of those enquiries.
Until the recent public airing of large segments of that Report sent senior government Ministers and spokespersons into the knee-jerk reactions we have witnessed. Unfortunately, the political regime in office is highly unlikely to scrap the voting eligibility of non-citizens at our general elections as it feels such a disposition may yet be of benefit in 2024. But the least we can expect is that the Electoral Commission or the Electoral Supervisory Commission dispel the clouds. It could recognise a duty of transparency by providing media and the population some clear statistics about contractual Commonwealth migrant workers: how many overall and the constituency distribution of those eligible and who have been registered to vote. Pending a dispassionate rethink of voting privileges at Mauritian general elections, if any, to be granted to non-citizens and on what conditions.
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 4 November 2022
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