by Sofia Lotto Persio @sofiaellepi
Smiling, reassuring faces hang from every tree and lamppost in Aarhus: most of them even surviving the recent storm.
These, and the banners hanging in the main shopping streets, remind citizens of the upcoming local election on 19 November. Voters will be asked to choose their representatives in one of the 98 municipal and 5 regional councils respectively. About 1.8 million people have the right to vote in the Northern and Central Jutland regions. This number may include you, too.
Most EU countries allow voting and eligibility rights to EU citizens, but have different rules concerning participation of non-EU internationals. Denmark allowed foreigners to vote in Municipal and Regional elections in the early 1980s, one of the first countries to permit this. Foreign nationals of the Nordic countries or another EU Member States, as well as those who have been resident in Denmark for the last 3 years, are entitled to vote.
If you fall in one of these categories, at least five days before the election date you should receive a polling card (valgkort) in your mailbox. Keep it safe and bring it with you, along with some form of ID, to the polling station indicated on your card on Tuesday 19/11. There you will be given two ballots (stemmeseddel), one for the municipal, one for the regional elections, containing a list of parties and candidate names. Though the instructions are written in Danish, you need to put one cross against a party list or the candidate name of your choice. In case you mark it incorrectly, or your ballot becomes invalid for some reasons, you can ask for a new ballot. This substitution cannot happen after the ballot has been put in the ballot box.
In case you won’t be able to make it on election day, you can also vote in advance at any national registration office in Denmark, up until the Saturday before the vote (16 November). For more information, click here (in english):
The participation turnout in recent elections is decreasing. Roger Buch, a professor of Political Science at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, explains that this is due to an increase sense of distance between voters and politicians. This is a trend between non-Danish citizens, too. Only 37% of the internationals voted in the last local elections, in 2009, says Yosef Bhutti, Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Copenhagen. According to him, factors contributing to a lower participation include an increase in temporary labour immigration, as these short-term workers feel less attached to local communities. Yet voting in local elections allows residents to “influence the way the city is going to look like” says Bhutti, and it is also a way for new arrivals to integrate in the Danish community: “Voting means becoming part of society, it allows expats to have the same rights as the Danes, and the same opportunities.”
Internationals who have the right to vote also have the right to run for election. Icelandic expat Villi Birgisson is taking this opportunity to run for the local council of Horsens, a town South of Aarhus: “I want to make a positive difference to those around me. A pro-active democratic inclusion of internationals might be the right position to get a perspective on new and better solutions.”
In fact local and regional elections are the most important elections when it comes to matters of public services and taxes, often more so than Parliamentary Elections. Municipal councils manage schooling, care for elderly, education, and integration programmes. Welfare and healthcare are priorities of the Regional councils, which also have roles in the promotion of economic growth and tourism, as well as traffic control and soil pollution in their area. The councils’ power is quite decentralised from the national government, so different councils can prioritise different areas of investment. “The level of taxation, or how much money the municipality invest in students per school… vary significantly across different municipalities,” says Buch. Also, he notes that elections in Denmark are usually tight, and so a seat can make a critical difference between minority and majority.
Jesper Theil, communication specialist at the organization International Community, which helps foreigners settling down in Denmark, agrees that the local elections give a powerful platform for foreigners to express their preferences: “The opinion of internationals is very important to improve the framework conditions for international employees and their families.” Being allowed to vote in local elections in a foreign country is an opportunity to have a saying in issues affecting everyday life of both foreigners and nationals, and it should not go to waste: as Jesper Theil reminds us; “the more people vote, the bigger the impact.”
*this photo was taken during the 2009 local elections
Sofia [Lotto Persio] is an eclectic journalist whose passions include, but are not limited to, politics, gender issues, and cultural events. She has worked for expat and student publications in the Netherlands and for Transitions Online, an online magazine covering the former communist countries of Europe and Central Asia. Her portfolio can be found at http://sofiaswords.wordpress.com/