Export democracy to the Greek diaspora – an oxymoron!

Export democracy to the Greek diaspora – an oxymoron!

The cosmopolitan city of Melbourne in Australia, which also happens to be the capital of the Greek diaspora, is currently hosting the recreation of the Parthenon on the Acropolis as “The Temple of Boom.” Australia is a beacon of democracy, and has embedded similar values and an institutional framework to those of the ancient Athenian democracy, very much like other full democracies. Indeed, Australia is ranked ninth in the EIU Global Democracy Index and Greek Australians have made a pivotal contribution (as they indeed have in other parts of the world) towards maintaining and improving civil liberties and political rights.

Yet, modern Greece, despite being the birthplace of democracy, has been consistently ranking as a flawed democracy and therein an oxymoron of our times in the pursuit of providing voting rights to Greek-born citizens abroad.

Recent escalated efforts to increase diaspora voting participation have fallen flat, with applications for registration not exceeding 4,000, and evidently the bureaucratic explanation is that, firstly, a number of expatriates never learned about the platform and, secondly, some felt that they did not meet the criteria, and as a result distanced themselves from the process. Among other requirements, the Greeks abroad who have resided for two years within Greece in the last 35 years and have submitted a tax return in the current or previous tax year have the right to register in the electoral rolls.

This level of interest (or indifference) is consistent with the low turnout at national elections: a mere 56.6% at the 2015 election and 57.9% at the 2019 election. This low voter turnout in recent years is fueling concerns over a crisis in representative democracy. Relevant figures seen by Kathimerini are indicative of the situation as they highlight an increasing number of citizens since 2004 choosing not to cast a ballot in all elections. Voting for elected officials is a freedom afforded to the citizens of many (but not all) countries around the world.

However, not every person eligible to vote does, and thus voter turnout oscillates globally. The reasons for this phenomenon vary: Some potential voters have no interest in politics or feel their vote doesn’t matter, some dislike the available candidates, factors leading to voter apathy more so in flawed democracies (e.g., Greece, Portugal, Poland, Croatia) in comparison to full and robust democracies (e.g., Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden). Some of these robust democracies, including Australia, host large Greek diaspora communities.

For example, Australia has one of the highest voter turnouts in the world. Since voting became compulsory in 1924, over 90 percent of those registered have voted in every federal election. The rules for voting for expatriates, if you are going overseas permanently or indefinitely, then you must obtain from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) and submit an Overseas Notification Form, which will remove you from the electoral roll. If you are going overseas for more than one year and less than six you can choose to remain on the roll by registering as an overseas elector – again by completing an AEC form. In other words, the AEC would seem to equate an intended stay overseas of six or more years as an indefinite departure. This may seem exclusive but it does not render Australia an undemocratic country in any sense as other factors dominate the processes of a healthy democracy.

In the same spirit, Ireland will hold a referendum before 2024 on whether or not Irish-born citizens abroad can vote in Ireland’s presidential elections. Ireland is indeed a robust democracy with a large and dynamic Irish diaspora, but unlike people in other countries, Irish people who are no longer living in the Republic of Ireland cannot cast votes in Irish elections from abroad.

More specifically, Ireland’s Electoral Act of 1992 dictates that Irish citizens who have left Ireland for no longer than 18 months are still entitled to vote. Thus, Irish citizens living abroad for more than 18 months are not permitted to vote in Irish elections. This stands in sharp contrast to the requirement for Greek-born citizens abroad who can vote if they have resided for two years within Greece in the last 35 years.

Greece as a flawed democracy needs to revisit this matter as absenteeism from casting a vote is also a dignified choice, a democratic choice, a method of practical criticism and exerting pressure on a pseudo-authority and its pretentious pursuit of the development and rise of truly democratic institutions. This is no different to the level of apathy shown by the Greek diaspora to stay away from homeland political conflict and party identity, with some minuscule exemptions, but the prospects of a wholesome representation of the diaspora in the Greek Parliament have fallen irreversibly on deaf ears.

Finally, Nikos Kazantzakis captures eloquently the spirit of the Greek diaspora and as a consequence the failure of the authorities to engage it in a political way:

“The further we are from our homeland, the more we think about it and the more we love it. When I am in Greece I see the pettiness, the intrigues, the nonsense, the inadequacies of the leaders, the misery of the people. But from a distance we don’t see the ugliness so clearly and we have more freedom to create an image of the homeland worthy of a total love. This is why I work better and love Greece better when I am abroad. Away from her I can better grasp her essence and her mission in the world, and my own humble mission as well. Something special happens to Greeks living abroad. They are getting better. They have the pride of their race, they feel that being Greeks they have the responsibility to be worthy of their ancestors. Their belief, that they come from Plato and Pericles, may perhaps be a utopia, a spontaneity of millennia, but this spontaneity, born of faith, exerts a fruitful effect on the modern Greek soul.”

Dr Steve Bakalis is an economist.

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