Row over right for foreigners to be elected

  • 2002-05-16
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis

On May 7 rightist opposition parties - the Conservatives, Libe-rals, Liberal Democrats and Chris-tian Democrats - blocked a bill allowing foreigners to run and vote in local elections.

The decision should probe a small pebble on the road to European Union membership, but has intensified debate on the whole subject of EU accession.

Some consensus is expected to be found and the constitution duly changed on May 21.

The rightists, who supported the bill in an earlier reading, now accuse the ruling Social Democrat-Social Liberal coalition of prompting the changes in order to win more votes in municipal elections scheduled for next spring.

The center-left is proposing to hold municipal elections together with presidential elections on Dec. 22 this year.

Changing the constitution requires the support of two-thirds of MPs - 94 of the total 141. With only 77 MPs, the ruling center-left must bring others on board to get the changes passed.

Giving foreigners voting rights in local elections is not a condition of EU membership, although EU citizens can participate in elections to the EU's Parliament anywhere in the EU.

Regulations on the issue vary across the continent, but the Council of Europe has issued a recommendation that its members allow foreigners to vote in the municipal elections.

Foreigners currently account for less than 1 percent in all Lithuanian constituencies except the town of Visaginas, home to the Ignalina nuclear power station, where 10 percent of inhabitants are foreigners, mostly from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

"The rightists are hypocrites. Liberal MP Jonas Cekuolis and Conservative MP Vytautas Landsbergis are also among Lithuanian MPs, now representing Lithuania, in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. They voted in favor of the recommendation of the Council of Europe to allow foreigners to vote in local elections. But their parties behave in the opposite way at home," said Social Democrat MP Juozas Olekas.

Arturas Paulauskas, parliamentary chairman and leader of the Social Liberals, expressed fears that the decision to postpone the adoption of the change could give "a bad signal" to the EU.

Social Democrat MP Irena Siauliene echoed Paulauskas: "The rightists are full of phobias. They value their parties' interests more than our country's goal of Euro-integration."

Opponents of extending voting rights have a variety of objections, however. "It would be more rational to grant the right to vote only to citizens of EU countries who live in Lithuania, not to all foreigners permanently residing in Lithuania," said Conservative MP Andrius Kubilius.

Liberal MP Eligijus Masiulis added: "It would be better if the amendment allowing foreigners to run and vote in elections to local governments would enter into force on Jan. 1, 2003 or from Lithuania's entry in the EU on Jan. 1, 2004. The ruling majority wants to implement this law immediately. We don't need to hurry."

Christian Democrat MP Kazys Bobelis provoked accusations of racism in the media with his comments in Parliament. "The amendment does not protect us from Vietnamese, Laotians and other Asians who are economic criminals," said Bobelis.

Later Bobelis said he had been misunderstood and had been speaking only about individuals, rather than all people from Vietnam and other Asian nations.

Conservative MP Jurgis Razma warned that after joining the EU Lithuania might expect big immigration from poor Eastern countries and allowing these immigrants to run municipalities could provoke the emergence of radical xenophobic movements.

Paulauskas retorted that the rightists should have made their new-found objections known earlier.

"They are like students who study only on the last night before exams," Paulauskas said.