THE NUMEROUS communities of Slovaks living outside the borders of their motherland could influence the outcome of the parliamentary elections in June. Most of them, however, have given up their chance to vote because they thought the voting procedure was too complicated and time-consuming. In response, organisations of Slovaks living in foreign countries have started a campaign to raise awareness about the possibilities for these citizens to make a contribution to political life ‘back home’ by voting in the 2010 parliamentary elections.
According to the law on parliamentary elections that became effective in 2004, citizens of Slovakia are allowed to vote in parliamentary elections by mail if they are not physically present in Slovakia on the day of the election.
A Slovak citizen living abroad must first register in advance in order to vote by mail. The appropriate election authority must receive the voter’s registration request no later than 50 days prior to the election – this year that deadline is April 23, 2010. Slovaks with a permanent residence address in Slovakia must send their request to the municipal office for their permanent address and those citizens with no permanent address in Slovakia must send their request to the special election district in Bratislava – Petrzalka.
The municipal office or special election district will then register the voter and at least 15 days before the election send all the documents needed for casting a vote, including detailed procedural information, to the address provided in the request. The voter is then obliged to send his or her vote back to the applicable municipality or special election district according to the instructions, while making sure that the vote arrives back in Slovakia no later than the last working day before election day – June 11 in 2010.
The costs of postage must be paid by the voter. More information on the absentee ballot procedures is available on the website of the Interior Ministry.
Experience from 2006
The first time Slovak citizens living abroad were able to vote in parliamentary elections was in 2006, after the new legislation came into effect.
According to Ján Bilik, the president of the civic association Migrácia SK, there are about 2 million Slovaks living abroad, while an estimated 200,000 – 400,000 still hold Slovak citizenship – mainly those who are living abroad temporarily or permanently who have retained a permanent address in Slovakia. Despite these large numbers, the number of Slovaks voting by mail in 2006 was only 3,427. Bilik said there are no statistics about which countries the votes came from but he thought it most likely that most came from the Czech Republic.
One of the biggest Slovak communities abroad is in the United Kingdom. Martin Hakel, director of the Slovak Centre in London, told The Slovak Spectator that according to the statistics of the UK Home Office there were about 100,000 Slovaks registered in the country for work purposes between 2004 and 2009, with an average age between 18 and 35.
“With this number we’ve become the second biggest community from the countries that entered the EU in 2004,” Hakel told The Slovak Spectator, adding that not all Slovaks coming to the UK register with UK Home Office and thus the unofficial number could be much higher than that, up to 150,000.
“I was shocked when I talked to representatives of other Slovak circles in the UK as well as in other countries after the elections in June 2006 and they told me that they did not vote from abroad,” Hakel said. “I was very disappointed to hear that those who talked about it so much in the end did not use this possibility.”
To raise awareness among Slovak nationals living abroad about the possibility to vote via mail Migrácia SK, supported by organisations of Slovaks in foreign countries including the Slovak Centre in London, started an online initiative Poďme voliť (Let’s go to vote), with a campaign to explain how and why to vote. Hakel said the Slovak Centre in London, together with the Slovak Centre in Ireland, also contributed by creating a website on how to vote from abroad and formed a Facebook group called Volím zo zahraničia (I vote from abroad) which has already attracted 1,000 members. The number of online visitors suggest that the interest of Slovaks living abroad in these parliamentary elections could be much higher than in 2006.
There are several reasons why casting an absentee ballot has not been attractive enough for people to bother. One of the frequently mentioned reasons is that people find the procedure rather complicated and time-consuming, said Hakel. He said an ideal way to improve the likelihood of voting would be to have a combination of voting possibilities: via mail, at consulates and embassies, and via the internet.
“I’m happy that there is this [mail] possibility but I don’t find the procedure simple at all,” Hakel said. “I find the current system to be rather a system on how to not vote from abroad – which is very favourable for political parties in Slovakia that subsequently don’t need to pay attention to the opinions of Slovak citizens living abroad.”
Hakel suggests that the internet could be involved much more in the election, at least in the first step – registration of the voter – but possibly could also enable people to vote directly via the internet, which would require changes to the current election system. He also said voting could be possible at consulates and embassies. And he added that if voting is to be done by mail, then the state should pay the postage rather than the citizen.
Both Bilik and Hakel stressed that the next amendment to the election legislation should widen the possibilities for Slovak citizens living abroad to also vote in the presidential election, elections for the European Parliament and municipal elections as well as for the national parliament.
Why should they vote?
The online campaign stresses several important reasons why Slovak citizens living abroad should vote in the June 2010 elections: their participation will raise the interest of Slovak politicians in Slovaks living abroad; they should exercise their right to vote and influence the direction of their country and the future for the next generation; and the economic reason – Slovaks living abroad sent about €1.07billion to Slovakia in 2006 alone, which was about 2 percent of the Slovak GDP.
“I believe these citizens should use the possibility to vote via mail from abroad, since most of them want to return to Slovakia either in the short-run or in the long-run,” Hakel said, explaining that most Slovaks living in the UK are young people who left Slovakia to earn more money, to learn the English language or to gain international experience that they believe could be an advantage for them in the Slovak labour market and that most of them stay only for a short time from one to five years.
According to Hakel, the state should pay more attention to Slovak citizens living abroad and help them keep their cultural identity.
“Voting from abroad is one of the most important ways to draw attention to Slovak communities abroad,” Hakel said. “To show that we are here, that we care about what’s happening in Slovakia, that we are still a part of the Slovak nation and that we contribute financially to the Slovak state indirectly through our families.”
But he added that political parties do not seem to care very much about these issues in their election programmes.
17. Mar 2010 at 17:55 | Michaela Terenzani