Representatives from different communes and local organizations in Brussels sat down together yesterday to formulate strategies for encouraging more expatriates to participate in next year’s communal elections.
During a seminar held in the city center, experts from local government, NGOs, and the academia exchanged ideas with forum participants on how to address the major issues preventing the city’s foreign residents from voting.
The need for communes to be more proactive
The panel of speakers underlined the need for communes to intensify efforts to reach out to and communicate with their foreign residents. Based on a research conducted by political scientist Louise Nikolic who spoke at the seminar, the more proactive communes yielded a higher number of foreign voters in the last communal elections.
But according to invited speaker Larry Moffett who organizes social networks for expats in Belgium, “It’s not enough to just inform citizens about the elections. You have to convince them, you have to persuade them, you have to show them why their vote can really make a difference in their daily lives in Brussels.” Efforts to connect with foreign residents should also go beyond the election period. Expats are more likely to vote if they can relate with their communes or if they have a sense of belongingness.
Making information available in different languages
Speakers and participants agreed on the importance of providing electoral information in different languages. Nikolic’s research showed that foreigners tend to disengage when communication is carried out only in French or Dutch. It also revealed that certain communes exhibited some level of discrimination against those who couldn’t speak French.
Although expats have a responsibility to learn the language of the country in which they live, Moffett said it’s still up to the authorities to make information available particularly in English since it is the common language of expats in Brussels.
Addressing expats’ misconceptions about “compulsory voting”
For Belgian citizens, voting is compulsory and failure to vote can warrant fines. This practice does not sit well with many expats, especially those coming from countries where voting is not considered an obligation.
Thomas Huddleston of the Migration Policy Group clarified that voting in the communal elections is not compulsory for non-Belgians. It only becomes an obligation for those who have already registered to vote.
So what will happen if you registered but failed to show up on election day? Huddleston said expats have nothing to fear since the chances of incurring a penalty are minimal to zero, in practice. Registrants can also de-register themselves after the elections to free themselves of any obligation to vote in succeeding elections. They can always re-enlist in the electoral register if they want to vote again.
More cooperation and coordination among local groups
Experts emphasized the role of local groups in facilitating a connection between local government and residents. NGOs and associations are well positioned to gain the trust and confidence of both the communes and their constituents.
The problem, according to Moffett, is that Brussels society is too fragmented. “There are so many organizations and associations doing similar things but on a small scale. If we can find some way to bring them all together and agree on a common platform, and allow each one to go and reach out to their constituents, there would be progress.”
Local groups in Brussels can learn from Minderhedenforum, an umbrella organization that brings together hundreds of local associations of ethnic-cultural minorities in Flanders. Kathleen Van Den Daele shared some of the organization’s best practices in empowering and engaging migrants, and building a strong network between them and the Dutch-speaking community in Brussels. The group represents their members in consultations and actively pursues trainings and information campaigns.
Mobilizing the expat community
Huddleston urged fellow expats to work together and share information on the elections through social media or by word of mouth. “We know what our interests are, we know what kind of life we want to have for ourselves and for our kids, we have our political opinions. I think that we have to fight together for our interests.”
One of the relevant points made during the seminar was that expats make up the majority in several communes in Brussels. “For example in Saint-Gilles or in Ixelles, most of the people who could vote are not Belgian citizens. So actually, it could be our commune. It could be done in a way that we would want it to be done,” said Huddleston. If only expats will embrace their full potential to influence policy directions in the city.
How about you? What’s keeping you from participating in the elections? And what will convince you to exercise your democratic right to vote on October 14, 2018?