The stakes and symbolism of voting from abroad

June 5

Syrian nationals living in Lebanon cast their votes ahead of the June 3 presidential election at the Syrian Embassy in Yarze, east of Beirut, on May 28. (Sharif Karim/Reuters)

Voter participation in Egypt and Syria’s diaspora communities has been prominent in the domestic and international coverage of the country’s respective presidential elections over the past weeks. Extensive logistical preparation and informational campaigns characterized both countries’ planning for the involvement of their nationals abroad in the balloting. The history of out of country voting (OCV) dates to 1902 in Australia, but before the 1980s, only a handful of additional countries followed suit. The most dramatic diffusion has been since 1989: According to the most comprehensive survey available, published by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in 2007, as of May 2007, 115 countries and territories had extended this right. Today the number is certainly higher.

Despite its growing practice, OCV is often controversial. Opponents argue that residency in-country has long been viewed as a condition for voting and that one should not have the right to vote for officials whose decisions are not binding upon the elector. Moreover, expatriates may be out of touch with domestic developments in the country of origin or may have priorities that differ significantly from their co-nationals back home. On the other hand, supporters of OCV generally base their arguments on normative claims of the right of citizens, regardless of place of residence, to participate in the political process, particularly if they send remittances. Also at stake, however, are issues of sovereignty for the host and sending states. The implementation of OCV may be viewed by the host state as an attempt by the sending state to reassert sovereignty over nationals resident abroad. In addition, even when that voting takes place on embassy or consular grounds – recognized in international law as sovereign territory of the foreign state – the process itself, which may involve candidate visits, campaign posters and radio broadcasts, as well as political meetings, may be deemed to violate host country sovereignty.

Why do governments extend the franchise in this way? In democracies, expanding voting rights can be a means to ensure that nationals abroad enjoy fuller citizenship rights or as part of a strategy of jockeying for electoral advantage. As for re-emerging democracies, restoring political rights has generally been a part of the transition: Negative attitudes toward exiles change with new leadership, and there is often a desire by a successor regime to right the wrongs of the past. Often, too, is the desire to tap the financial resources of emigrants, a potential that seems more likely if political rights are offered or expanded. However, in the case of Middle East and North Africa countries, with the exception now of Tunisia, we are dealing with variations on authoritarian states, whether monarchies or republics. The relatively robust literature on elections under authoritarianism stresses the role that considerations of regime legitimation, political mobilization, domestic power sharing, institutionalizing hegemonic party dominance and international pressures may play in such processes. Yet, the theoretical literature on OCV in authoritarian settings remains underdeveloped.

OCV was first adopted in the MENA region by Algeria in 1976; Iran followed suit in 1980. Morocco introduced the right for the 1984 parliamentary elections, but then canceled it without explanation in the next round in 1993. Sudan offered voting from abroad in 1986, but the right was not offered again until April 2010, and then in 2011 in the referendum on southern Sudanese independence. Tunisia was added to the list in 1988, Bahrain in 2002, Yemen in 2002 (although the right has not yet been implemented), Iraq in 2005, Syria in 2007 and Lebanon in 2009 (also not implemented). However, in each country, the types of elections in which OCV is permitted, how the balloting is carried out, as well as the lag time between legalization and actual implementation vary.

Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings in winter 2011, a number of significant changes and expansion in OCV have been introduced. Tunisia was first, not only expanding the types of elections in which its nationals abroad could vote from solely referenda to presidential and parliamentary polls, but also instituting the still relatively uncommon provision of creating overseas electoral districts for expatriate-designated seats in the parliament. Egypt was next to implement OCV, with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces apparently pressured to accord the right by the activism of high-profile civil society actors and associations, both at home and abroad. Although various provisions for OCV have changed since it was legalized three years ago, Egypt holds the record for the most OCV accompanying votes since the revolution: 2011 parliamentary elections, 2012 Shura Council elections, the constitutional referenda in December 2012 and January 2014, and presidential elections in 2012 and 2014.

Other countries in which there have been significant post-Arab uprising OCV developments are Libya, which issued the decision to allow OCV only a few weeks before the July 7, 2012 polling for the General National Congress, and Morocco, which revived OCV to enable Moroccans abroad to vote directly at embassies or consulates in the referendum on the summer 2011 constitutional amendments and then (although only by a cumbersome proxy system) in the parliamentary elections that followed.

The development of OCV since the Arab uprisings offers a number of important lessons for scholars of elections, diasporas and authoritarian resilience. In the case of Tunisia, for example, the fall 2011 success of the Islamist Ennahda party in winning half (nine) of the seats designated for Tunisians abroad was critical to its securing a plurality of seats in the Constituent Assembly. In the case of Libya, the decision was made not to include Libyans living in Tunisia or Egypt in OCV coverage: The formal justification was that these communities were close enough to return home to vote, but a more likely explanation was that their proximity also made them the most likely hosts of supporters of the overthrown Gaddafi regime.

The recent elections in Egypt and Syria, which have drawn so much international scrutiny, offer additional insights into the role of OCV. In Egypt, there was a clear and high-profile media campaign to get out the expatriate vote: Through the press, Web sites and social media, Egyptians residing abroad were both informed of their right (and duty) to vote (with many messages including clear, or only slightly veiled, pro-Sisi messages) and were apprised of the simplification of the process over previous polling, most notably, the elimination of the need to register abroad in advance. Egypt, like most other countries offering OCV, holds the overseas balloting before in-country voting. Hence, a significant turnout of expats was in effect scripted as the first step toward a huge outpouring of support for the former field marshal. High-level Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials urged and predicted a massive turnout. During the three-day polling period, which was extended for an additional day, regular reports appeared in the press of the enthusiasm and high turnouts in the communities abroad. In the event, the vote in the diaspora was heavily pro-Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (94.5 percent), but the turnout was smaller than it had been in the 2012 presidential polls (52.3 to 46 percent).

In the case of Syria, only in the presidential referendum (not elections) of 2007 had Syrians abroad previously been able to participate, and the press coverage of the OCV was minimal. The 2014 elections, on the other hand, attracted huge attention, not only because of what was viewed by outside analysts as an illegitimate exercise in the context of a civil war in which significant parts of the country are not under regime control, but also because of the highly regionalized and internationalized nature of the conflict. As in Egypt, the Syrian diaspora vote was held in advance of the in-country balloting, thus setting it up to have a potentially powerful demonstration effect, for regime supporters and opponents alike. Indeed, the OCV process became one of the symbols and the stakes in the larger, brutal conflict: The voting of Syrians abroad was not only one part of the regime’s legitimation strategy, it was also inextricably linked to the ongoing regional and extra-regional power struggle. Thus, the process in Syria has several critical characteristics that set it apart from other OCV experiences, in the MENA region and beyond.

While it is not unprecedented for authoritarian regimes to oppose the holding of OCV on their territory (even if on embassy grounds), in the case of the Syrian elections not only did the United Arab Emirates ban OCV, but, in what may be an unprecedented move, it was preceded in imposing this ban by such democratic countries as Germany, France and Belgium. In countries where voting was permitted, manifestations of both enthusiasm for and outrage against the regime were common. Anti-Bashar al-Assad media coverage of the massive OCV participation by Syrians in Lebanon portrayed all such voting as a sham, engaged in as a result of fear of loss of passports, the right to return or personal/family safety. At the same time, the huge turnout in Beirut, which clogged a number of the capital’s streets, led the Syrian government to extend OCV there for a second day. The consequent “consternation” of the Lebanese authorities led to the announcement of steps aimed at obstructing the vote in-country, by retracting an earlier promise to facilitate Syrians’ access to the Masna land border crossing, where the Syrian Higher Electoral Committee had set up a polling station for those expatriates and refugees in the surrounding countries who did not want to enter the war-torn country.

In sum, a careful examination of OCV’s origins, mechanisms of implementation and reception by diaspora members and host country governments reveals stakes of tremendous importance. They also offer additional windows into regime intent and concerns that proceed from and shape domestic politics. The upcoming elections in Egypt and Tunisia, both of which are engaged in critical political transitions, will offer the next examples for charting the evolution of OCV’s role in the MENA region.

Laurie A. Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California and Chair of the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom.

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