Written by Zvezda Vankova, Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Group
The Czech Human Rights Minister Jiri Dienstbier expressed his desire to open a debate on the voting rights to immigrants through amendments to election laws. According to him, “immigrants’ participation in the decision-making process in their place of residence would contribute to their integration”. His ambition is to enfranchise long-term residents in the Czech Republic and grant them voting rights at least at local level.
According to current Czech law, citizens of different countries, who have registered their permanent residence in the municipality, can vote in local elections if they are granted these rights by an international treaty. As pointed out by MIPEX, the Czech government has been ineffective at signing treaties giving ‘reciprocal’ voting rights for non-EU permanent residents. The only such international treaty allowing this is the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Therefore, currently foreign residents with electoral rights in the Czech Republic are EU citizens.
What change can we expect in the MIPEX score of the Czech Republic?
Political participation opportunities for immigrants in the Czech Republic are the 2nd least favourable for integration of all 31 MIPEX III countries. If the envisaged amendments pass, the electoral rights score of Czech Republic would increase by between 16 to 19 points, depending on whether TCNs are granted equal rights to EU nationals or additional requirements continue to apply, such as a form of reciprocity, residence requirement of more than 5 years, special registration procedure, etc. Enfranchisement of third country nationals for local elections is becoming a trend in the EU. A lot of the Central European countries, such as Hungary, Slovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, have already liberalised their election laws and granted long-term residents the right to vote in local elections.
Even though the MIPEX score of the Czech Republic in this policy strand would increase, political participation rights would continue to be unfavourable for immigrant integration. At present, immigrants are denied key political liberties and cannot join parties, nor found associations unless 3 Czech citizens are on the board. Moreover, they cannot benefit from democratic consultative bodies or dedicated funding to organise, meet community needs, and represent their interests.
There are many examples of good practices from the new countries of immigration in Central Europe, which have gone a step further and also granted long-term residents the right to stand as candidates in local elections (Lithuania in 2002 and Slovakia in 2003). Most countries have used the European Integration Fund to support associations working on integration. Local and national authorities in Estonia, Latvia, and Poland have started a dialogue and consultation with associations of foreign residents.
Granting immigrants the right to participate in local elections before naturalisation has few implementation and maintenance costs and does not lead to the negative effects often raised in debates– e.g. greater foreign influence, creation of ethnic parties, and radical overturn of status quo. Moreover, breaking the symbolic link between voting rights and nationality can instigate a process that eventually extends that right to most foreigners at various levels of governance.