The globalization of political, personal and professional life, the spread of democracy throughout the world and an increase in migration have all contributed to an increasing interest in voting rights for diasporas and other people who are temporarily or permanently absent from their own country.
The ability of Nigerians to exercise their right to vote abroad when an election takes place has long been vigorously debated. As the number of democratic elections quadrupled, however, it has become increasingly more prominent. As 2019 elections commence in Nigeria, inculcating people living outside Nigeria to participate in building its future through external voting are increasingly imperative.
Essentially, external voting is geared towards increasing political participation and thereby contributing to the legitimacy and accountability of democratic governments. Problematic as it can precipitate. from both the practical and the theoretical points of view, the right to an external vote can also be an indispensable part of the citizen’s political rights; but the question of external voting does elevate its own series of issues surrounding participation that need to be superscribed.
As with so many other aspects of the electoral process, there is no single ‘correct’ way of deciding who should be entitled to vote externally. A model that will suit one country may be totally inappropriate in another. For example, it may be feasible to allow any citizen of a country to vote externally, regardless of their intention to return, where the population of the home country is large and the voting influence of expatriates would not be expected to outweigh that of the home population. On the other hand, a country with a small population and a relatively large number of expatriates might be wary of handing electoral influence to a body of persons who may no longer have a direct interest in their home country.
In most cases where external voting is permitted, external voters account for only a relatively small proportion of overall turnout. Nonetheless, an external voting population may have a commodious impact on election results. Examples include Italy’s 2006 legislative elections—the first held in which external voting was permitted. The election outcome was unknown until all the external votes were counted, giving this relatively small group considerable political impact due to the fact that the electoral system allows a bonus for the party or coalition with the highest number of votes. In some cases external votes have transposed the scales in an election; and they are often counted last. This effect may or may not be more pronounced in Nigeria. If one considers the figure of 15 million Nigerians in the Diaspora being estimated, it means the value of the Diaspora vote is not only of a swing value but if the turnout is good it will be more than one Nigerian state worthy.
In attempting to specify ‘best practice’ principles to guide those who are considering adopting or amending external voting eligibility criteria, it may be worthwhile to consider the purpose of the franchise. The franchise is the right to vote for elected representatives. Its purpose is to allow persons to elect representatives to sit in parliament and/or the executive and to determine and administer laws on their behalf. It would therefore appear reasonable to limit the right to vote to those who have a direct interest in the determination and administration of those laws.
However, if it is accepted that the franchise should only be granted to those with a direct interest in the process, it follows that extending the right to vote to absent citizens who have no intention to return to the home country—or to persons who hold dual citizenship and are permanent residents in another country where they are also citizens—may be seen as too generous. Indeed, it could be expostulated that a country’s sovereignty could be at jeopardy if its representatives are elected in part by voters who reside abroad. It would also follow that the right to vote should be extended to absent citizens who intend to return in the foreseeable future, as they too would have a direct interest in the government of their home country. This argument would particularly apply to those who are temporarily absent in the service of their country, such as diplomats and members of the armed forces.
However, while it is easier to justify, using the principle of ‘intent to return’ as a determining factor to grant voting rights to citizens abroad may be more onerous to administer than allowing all citizens to vote while abroad. It mandates, at a minimum, some form of notification from citizens who are abroad (or are going abroad) that their absence is temporary and that they intend to return to their home country.
The interrogation then arises whether notice of intent to return ought to be accepted at face value, or whether an objective test should be applied. It may be onerous to devise an unprejudiced test that is not discriminatory and contrary to the principles of universal suffrage.
For example, requiring evidence of ownership of a house or property would clearly discriminate against those who do not own property and could be seen as a return to a property-based voting right. Whether this is imperative, will depend on our circumstances of particularly on whether large numbers of electors are likely to register to vote while they are abroad.
Finally, no doubt the issue of the extension of the eligibility to vote externally will un-relent to evolve in different ways in different places. The fact that there are more questions than answers in this article is probably an intimation that there will be more cantankerous and antagonistic bickering emanating from adding a Diaspora element to the conundrum of Nigerian elections.
Prof. Ben Nna Okoye
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