In Europe, a voting-rights debate

Belgium is considering a bill that would let noncitizen immigrants cast ballots in local elections.

In a roadside gas station 25 miles west of the Belgium capital, a handful of truckers are sipping hot coffee and loudly discussing politics.

"In the big cities, the immigrants already run the city councils," one of the men says, in a statement marked by equal parts of hyperbole and resentment. "Now that they are going to give them all the right to vote, they will take over the smaller towns, too. Pretty soon, we won't be the boss in our own country anymore."

Belgian plans to let noncitizen immigrants vote in local elections are fanning the latest controversy as Europe wrestles with the issues of immigration, citizenship, and national identity.

Proponents say the change will bring Belgium into line with other parts of Europe - such as Sweden, Finland, Ireland, and the Netherlands, where immigrants without European Union (EU) citizenship already have the right to cast ballots in local polls.

Some EU member states see such rights as a way to compensate for earlier failed integration policies, says Anoush Desboghessian, an analyst with the Brussels-based European Network Against Racism (ENAR). "Europe is changing," she says. "There is more and more diversity of cultures and languages. But immigrants remain excluded from society."

Policymakers in Italy, Germany, and France are also debating voting rights for noncitizen immigrants. But, as in Belgium, the issue is controversial.

"Passing this law goes against the will of the majority of the people," says Philip Dewinter, the political leader of the far- right Flemish Bloc. "This is a permanent message to foreigners that Belgium is a land of milk and honey, where they have rights but no duties. It will attract more foreigners - poor foreigners without any added value for our society."

But to Turkish-born socialist senator Fatma Pehlivan, voting rights are essential to immigrants' integration in society. "The people who will benefit from this measure are mostly first-generation immigrants - people who have come here in the '60s, and have contributed to this country's economy. To them, this is a positive signal that they are part of society, that their vote counts."

Immigrant voting rights were first discussed in Belgium in the late 1970s, when it became clear that the hundreds of thousands of Muslim guest workers from Turkey and Northern Africa, who had moved to Europe in the boom years of the '60s, would never go back. Local voting rights were seen as a way to give them a say in how their communities - most in the inner city - were governed.

With the more pressing matter of economic hardship on the table in the '80s, and the electoral rise of the anti-immigrant far right in the '90s, the idea was put on hold in Belgium, only to be revived by the current left-leaning administration of socialist and liberals.

Under the proposal, now making its way through the Belgian parliament, noncitizen immigrants from non-EU countries who have lived in Belgium legally for at least five years - and are therefore considered to be sufficiently integrated - would be permitted to cast their ballots in local elections. As a special condition, they would have to register to vote (which Belgian nationals do not have to do, since the country has compulsory voting), and sign a written declaration that they will respect the Belgian laws and constitution - a provision that was added as a safeguard against Islamic fundamentalism. A number of immigrant groups criticize the special condition as discriminatory.

"The proposal is about people like my parents, who have been in Belgium for 40 years and have always been taxpaying, law-abiding people," says Mourad Bekkour, an immigrant rights activist from Antwerp, whose family is from Morocco. "Now they would have to sign a form that says they are not terrorists. To me, that is demeaning and hurtful."

Many first-generation immigrants from Morocco and Turkey never applied for Belgian citizenship. Most came from rural backwaters in their countries of origin. Since applying for Belgian citizenship involves producing birth certificates that in many cases simply do not exist, thousands never bothered.

According to the Belgian Ministry of Domestic Affairs, as of February 2002, the number of potentially eligible non-EU voters was 123,542, among Belgium's total population of 10.3 million inhabitants. "This is about a fairly small number of people," says Dirk Jacobs, a researcher with the Institute for Social and Political Opinion Research (ISPO), at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. "In most communities nothing would change. In some cities one or, at most, two council seats would change hands."

According to Mr. Jacobs, the Belgian initiative is part of a trend to grant people who live in the EU equal political rights, regardless of nationality. "After the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, voting rights [in local and European elections] were granted to EU nationals in other EU member states. The logical conclusion of that principle is: If an Italian or a Greek can vote in Belgium or Holland the day he moves there, why not give the same right to a Moroccan or an American who has been there for much longer?"

In countries where noncitizen immigrants are already allowed to vote locally, fears of Islamic fundamentalist parties taking over city councils have so far proven unfounded.

A 1998 study by the European Research Centre on Migration and Ethnic Relations (ERCOMER) in Utrecht in the Netherlands, shows that, although their electoral turnout is low, immigrants initially tend to vote for left-wing parties. After a number of years, their votes spread out, and, by and large, they vote the same way as the general population. The traditional political families - liberals, socialists and Christian-democrats - cater to these new constituencies by presenting them with moderate Muslim candidates.

In Belgium's last general elections, the party Resist, a somewhat unlikely alliance between the radical Arab- European League, led by "the Belgian Malcolm X," Dyab Abou Jahjah, and the Maoist Labour Party, failed to clear the 5 percent threshold to qualify for parliamentary representation. "Those Muslim parties have some grass-roots support, but they represent a minority of the immigrant community," says Jacobs.

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