Ask those who are in power if they wish to share their power with others – and most often the answer will be ‘no’. Extending eligibility through the ballot box takes time. That happened in (democratic) Switzerland, where the (eligible) men were asked to grant women the vote too; the men voted against this proposal for more than 100 years before finally saying ‘yes’ by a 2/3-majority in 1971.
In Sweden, too, the national parliament has seen proposals to extend voting rights on issues (through citizens’ initiatives and popular referendums) for more than a century – and still today popular votes on substantive issues are mostly just consultative (arranged by the elected representatives) and not binding (unlike elections). And these are just a couple of examples of one classic dilemma of democracy, where a (restricted) group of people is eligible to vote on whether others should also become part of the (eligible) group or not.
No European pioneer
In the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the European Union’s second smallest but wealthiest member state, we saw another example of this on June 7: triggered by parliament and its red- green majority, the 245,000 eligible voters of the country were asked whether they would like to extend the voting right in national elections also to foreign citizens who have lived in the country for more than ten years – and whether 16-year old residents should also get the right to vote. Currently the voting eligibility age is 18.
On both (consultative) referendum questions the voters said a clear ‘no’: 78% of the participating voters were against giving the vote to foreigners and 81% said ‘no’ to lowering the voting age to 16 years. While Luxembourg would have been the first country in Europe to allow foreigners to vote, another EU country, Austria, already allows 16-year olds to actively participate in the political decision making process.
Who speaks “Letzeburgesch”?
Luxembourg is a very special country: in the middle of Europe, its 550,000 people enjoy a very high standard of living. The legal minimum salary is EUR 2000 per month and the average annual income per capita is almost EUR 100,000. While multiple citizenship has been allowed since 2009, almost half of the population does not have a Luxembourg passport. In order to get one you need to pass a language test on the national language “Letzeburgesch”, which is a Moselle-Franconian variant of West Central German – and not too easy to acquire. For this reason and in order to avoid a Gulf state situation, where only a minority of the population has national citizenship, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel – the world’s first PM to marry a same-sex partner whilst in office – proposed a modernization package to be voted on in the run-up to the 2017 mandatory referendum on a new constitution. Bettel (and many with him) wanted to extend the democratic and participatory foundation of the country in the current constitution-making process; but this attempt ended in a bitter defeat as almost four out of five voters disapproved the proposals.
Many mistakes – and a few lessons
The key mistakes of the failed modernization attempt were the envisaged disconnect between eligibility and national citizenship, which most voters did not subscribe to, and the fact that the proposals came from the (unpopular) government and not from a broad alliance of citizens’ groups (The newspaper Luxemburger Wort identified another 8 mistakes). It will now take a lot of reflection and dialogue to find a way forward to the planned new constitution of Luxembourg, which to begin with will clearly not include any major reform in relation to the foreign and youth vote. A possible way forward would be to liberalize the citizenship provisions, making it easier to become a citizen of the Grand Duchy.
However, there is no short-cut in prospect around this classic dilemma of modern democracy: that it is the ones in power who can ultimately decide on sharing power with others, while the latter need to struggle, argue and convince the former to do just that – for the future benefit of both!
Text by Bruno Kaufmann, Board Member of Democracy International and editor-in-chief of People2Power.
This article was originally published here.
Credits of image above: by Wikipedia, creative commons, see source here.