Democracy, a word from the Greek that means ‘rule’ (kratos) by the ‘people’ (demos), is an ancient concept and principle of government. The United Nations Universal Declaration on Democracy considers it as ‘a basic right of citizenship’ to be exercised under conditions of ‘freedom, equality, transparency and responsibility’. Yet, for much of the past, these rights were enjoyed by very few people and it was only during the 19th and especially 20th centuries that exclusions from political rights were slowly eroded thanks to the actions of brave individuals and civil society.
Democracy, migration and mobility have always been related in various ways. It was in port cities, such as Bristol, that information travelled on ships making their way overseas. For example, after the French revolution, news about ‘liberté, égalité and fraternité’ ‘freedom, equality and brotherhood’ reached the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean. This was France’s most precious possession due to the production of sugar by slaves. The French Revolution spurred the aspirations of leaders such as Toussaint Louverture to achieve independence, something they obtained after a long fight against their former owners leading to the creation of Haiti.
Like all former colonies that obtained independence in the Americas in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the same as any other new state that was created afterwards, Haiti had to respond three fundamental questions. First, how do I govern myself? Second, what is my territory? And, third, and most important for our purposes here, who is part of my population? In other words, who are nationals and who are foreigners? And what are the rights that pertain to each category, including political rights? The answer to these questions was complicated by the fact that early forms of democratic organisation after the French Revolution were far from democratic in the way that we would understand the term today.
There were many individuals who were excluded from any type of political participation such as women, illiterates or those without capital or property. There were also discriminations on the basis of race. For example in the US, citizenship, and thus political rights, was limited to those who were born in its territory and were also free and white. It was only after the Civil War in 1868 when the 14th Amendment extended citizenship to African Americans and later to Asians and Native Americans. Or in Brazil, exclusions of different categories of individuals from political rights meant that as late as the end of the 19th century less than 1% of the population were actually voting.
It is now largely accepted that any democracy worthy of that name cannot discriminate by race, or against women, or the illiterate or the poor when it comes to voting. However, democracies still largely consider that foreigners can be denied the right to vote. Indeed, whilst there are now more and more countries which allow non-nationals to vote in local elections, only five countries in the world, Chile, Ecuador, Malawi, New Zealand and Uruguay, enfranchise foreigners in national elections. This affects not only political representation but also gives a powerful signal about who does and doesn’t belong in any given society. In an age of increasing global mobility, are the rules for the participation in democratic processes still fit for purpose?
Can we really talk of a true democracy when a percentage of the residents in any particular territory are denied the right to vote? And are the current rules to allocate citizenship, which in turn affect who can vote, fair? Let’s use a pair of case studies that reflect on how Italian citizenship is allocated to help us to think about these questions.
Case study A is represented by Joanna, a US national who has never been to Italy, who does not speak a word of Italian but who does however hold Italian citizenship since her great grandparents emigrated from Italy to the Lower East side in New York in the early 20th century. Joanna has the right to vote in any of the national Italian elections by mail and of course has the right to move and reside and work not only in Italy but also in any other EU country by virtue of her Italian, and therefore EU, citizenship. Case study B is represented by Michael, another New Yorker. Michael has lived in Italy for more than nine years and speaks fluent Italian.
By contrast, Michael does not have the right to vote in any election in Italy, despite the fact that he has been a long-time resident of the country. Michael would only acquire this right at the State’s discretion once he naturalises through an application he could make after 10 years of residence. These case studies raise a number of interesting issues for us to think about in terms of democracy and global citizenship. They highlight for us that deciding who is a national and who is a foreigner has always been and continues to be a political choice. Why is it that we still exclude foreigners from voting?
Why is it that we no longer accept previous exclusions for women, or the illiterate, but we do accept that Michael, who has lived in Italy for nine years, isn’t able to vote in the Italian elections? Is democracy, then I ask you, possible when certain residents continue to be excluded?