No one-size-fits-all for foreign suffrage

How the rest of the world deals with aliens at the ballot box

Support has been surprisingly muted for the Hatoyama administration’s push toward suffrage for foreign permanent residents, even among the constituencies such a law would enfranchise. The debate is definitely a hot one, sparking a number of protests against the plan around Tokyo, with opposition logic ranging from the rational (“They should nationalize”) to xenophobic (“Foreigners who hate Japan will take over the country”).

Giving voting rights to noncitizens is of course a controversial move, with implications in terms of sovereignty, democracy, integration and discrimination. But it is an issue many countries have been dealing with for generations as they grappled with the legacy of colonization and mass migration. While still generally an exception to the rule, over 40 countries around the world give legal aliens the right to vote in some capacity, employing a wide range of systems to address equally varied concerns.

Laws range from the plain (any permanent residents having resided in Iceland continuously for at least five years may vote) to complex (in Switzerland, foreigners may not vote on the national level, but may vote, and even run for office, in some cantons and/or municipalities). A few countries, such as the United States, Canada and Australia, have over the years taken away suffrage for foreign residents

Within Asia, the South Korean government made two big leaps simultaneously in 2005 by lowering the voting age to 19 and ushering in foreign suffrage in local elections for those who have been permanent residents for three years or more. According to the National Election Commission, at the time of local polls in May 2006 there were only 6,579, mostly Taiwanese, residents that benefited from the new legislation on noncitizen voting rights.

“Korea is now the first nation in Asia to grant voting rights to foreign residents,” The Herald newspaper quoted Kim Cheol, deputy director of public relations at the Nation Election Commission, as declaring. “We hope this will accelerate a move to integrate foreign communities into the homogenous society.”

The issues of foreign suffrage in South Korea and Japan are deeply interlinked due to the legacy of Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and the end of the war. There is speculation that one of the reasons the move was made in Seoul was in the hope that Japan would give similar rights to its foreign residents, particularly the nearly 600,000 Koreans who live here. South Korean foreign and trade minister Yu Myung Hwan hinted as much during a meeting earlier this month with Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, and again called on Japan to grant local-level suffrage to permanent residents, a measure Okada said the government was “considering.”

“I think enfranchising immigrants is the logical next step in the fulfillment of the practice of democracy,” says Ron Hayduk, political science professor at the City University of New York, author of “Democracy For All” and vocal supporter of immigrant suffrage. Proponents of noncitizen voting such as Hayduk believe that while citizenship is a viable solution for some, for those such as Japan’s Zainichi Koreans, the decision to renounce citizenship of their home country is not only an issue of loyalty, but also of familial ties and material investments, particularly as Japan does not permit dual citizenship.

But while municipalities around the globe buy into foreigner suffrage under the principles of “No taxation without representation” and immigrant involvement, there is no one-size-fits-all policy for giving noncitizens the right to have a say in what many strongly feel is an arena where only naturalized or native-born citizens have a role to play.

“What works in one jurisdiction isn’t going to necessarily work in another,” Hayduk admits, “but precluding the option to vote for long-term residents creates opportunities for continued inequality and discriminatory policies.”