Friday, 13 February 2009

Greece's largest untapped resource

The government recently reintroduced its long-debated diaspora vote bill, which would allow Greek nationals abroad to vote from their nearest consulate or embassy. Currently, they must travel to Greece at great expense to the parties or themselves, necessarily limiting their numbers to the tens of thousands.

But the number of eligible Greek voters living overseas could potentially be close to a million. This transpires from the difference between Greece's resident adult population in the 2001 census, of 8.6 million, and the national voter registration list, of about 9.8 million. Even factoring in inaccuracy and unregistered deaths, the bulk of the difference is thought to come from eligible non-resident voters. Since an estimated 5.6 million ethnic Greeks live abroad, it is not a fantastic assumption that up to a fifth of them could have inherited citizenship or emigrated. And given that just over seven million people voted in the last election, the addition of hundreds of thousands more foreign-educated Greeks is potentially momentous.

Unfortunately, that worries many MPs across the spectrum, who fear that they lack the resources to campaign abroad. When the bill was first presented in 2007, Pasok suggested that rather than contributing towards existing constituencies, as is currently the case, diaspora votes should count towards specially created ones.
This is the position Pasok is sticking to now in rejecting New Democracy's amended bill, announced last week, which would channel the diaspora vote towards non-constituency-based, statewide MPs. Twelve such seats are currently awarded to the parties in proportion to their share of the national vote.

The bill is practically dead in the water since it needs a two-thirds parliamentary majority to pass. In the absence of Pasok, all 46 remaining opposition MPs aren't enough.

That is a shame, because the effective enfranchisement of a million Greeks has the potential to change this country's unfortunate political character. It could, at a stroke, help marginalise the loony left anachronisms within Pasok, Syriza and the KKE, allowing the more reasonable voices in those parties to prevail. It could help repatriate the brains and investment capital of the diaspora by anteing up the political leverage those brains and money (rightly) will not come without. And it could help export Greek goods and services, if Greeks as far away as Australia and California felt they had a stake in the prosperity of their genetrix. The pride diaspora Greeks amply demonstrate in their heritage and the energy they volunteer for Greek causes even in the absence of such leverage leaves no doubt as to the potential they hold for this country. They are, arguably, our largest untapped resource, far more valuable than the oil puddles under the Aegean we obsess over.

Yet the reaction of both power parties before this national potential has been disappointing. Pasok's constitutional amendment of 2001 specifically called for a bill to include the diaspora vote, but Pasok then did nothing before losing power three years later. Its proposal to create special constituencies will lead to arguments over the consolidation of some existing constituencies, because the constitution forbids more than 300 MPs. But, more importantly, it will marginalise their influence.

ND laudably picked up where Pasok left off and brought a respectable bill in 2007. Even then, however, it did not dare bring up the possibility of a postal ballot, which would truly facilitate widespread overseas voting. Its latest suggestion of keeping the diaspora vote out of constituencies altogether and simply channelling it into the statewide list is arguably unconstitutional and, at any rate, insulting. ND slyly suggests that three of the nominees on each party's list should be Greek nationals who have resided abroad for at least ten years, but it does not specify how high up the list they should be. Typically, only the first seven stand a chance (ND and Pasok presently each have just five statewide MPs in parliament).

Yet even this most watered-down version of the 2007 bill has been knocked out of the field by a singularly partisan opposition, ensuring that Greece will remain politically severed from many Greeks. Why? Greek-Americans, Greek-Canadians and Greek-Australians have all climbed rapidly up the economic and social ladders of these new societies. Many of them look upon Greece as a parallel universe, beautiful but treacherous, plunging into which would be a salto mortale. Could it be that we feel intimidated by the achievements of our diaspora?

The irony of the bill's ultimate failure is that it has been brought about by the very national politics it would change. Pasok is in no mood for bipartisanship, seeing it as a crutch for an ailing conservative administration. Polls show that elections would increase its parliamentary representation from the present 102 seats to about 140, mostly because it would come out ahead of New Democracy and win a 40-seat bonus. As far as Pasok is concerned, that presents a more tantalising prospect than a few statewide seats from the diaspora.

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