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Should “Hellenes without Borders” be allowed to vote in Greece?

By on October 19, 2014
Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis

My vote on this, for what it’s worth, is “No.”

I am not making light of this desire of many Diaspora Greeks to vote and to participate politically in the affairs of the homeland. Not at all. In fact, unlike many of the several million (depending on how you count) Greek Diaspora, I am probably most likely to be in an eligible category to vote. I am a Greek citizen, with passport and a national identification card. I have lived in Greece, worked there, paid taxes there, served in her army.

But I do not live there anymore, and I do not think I should have “representation without taxation,” to turn the Founding Fathers’ phrase of protest against the British Parliament. Further, and perhaps more importantly, my vote has consequences for those who live in Greece, and I do not live there. I would suggest that those who live with the consequences of their vote–should vote.

Those that know me might accuse me of hypocrisy, because as American citizens abroad for over 7 years, my wife and I regularly voted in US elections. My response is this, Americans are taxed globally (though not all Americans abroad file taxes), so we have “taxation with representation.” That is the short and flippant answer, but the differences between Americans abroad and Greeks abroad are many and fundamental.

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Americans abroad are, with very rare exceptions, expatriates, whereas Greeks abroad are generally a Diaspora. Let’s consider the difference. Roughly six million US citizens are said to live abroad. Out of a US population of approximately 315 million, this translates to about two percent of the US population. Often enough Americans abroad work for large US multinationals or their stay in the country in question is often finite. Another large group are retirees, essentially arbitraging the cost of living differential between the US and their host countries. Though this has started to change, generally Americans do not integrate into their host societies, unless they are already dual nationals. Consider, for example, the large Greek-American and Greek-Australian pensioner population in Greece.

The Greek case is decidedly different. Greeks from time immemorial have been leaving their homeland, alternately integrating, assimilating, and sometimes repatriating, voluntarily or not. Greece has 11 million people, and there are at least four million clearly identifiable Greeks in the Diaspora. That number is almost forty percent of the total population of Greece, and even a portion of those voting can seriously distort an election process.

While passionate about being Greek and loving their homeland, the gap between the homeland and the Diaspora can be vast. How much does a third generation Greek-American from, say, my Salt Lake City hometown, know about issues in Greece to make a qualified voting choice? Where will she find such information? If she speaks Greek at all, it is unlikely to be of the level that she could follow Greek media. Why, too, with nothing at stake in terms of day to day life, should she choose for those who will live with the consequences of her vote?

Who is, further, a Greek? How far back to you go, what percentage Greek do you have to be? Do you use Greek Orthodox Church membership, though such a religious criterion would likely be illegal under EU law and many church members are not Greek at all, either converts or married to Greeks. Further, not all Greeks are practicing Orthodox. Even if we use the criteria of Greek passport holders, I would suggest that this is problematic as well. We might argue that a Greek born and raised in Greece, or people like me who repatriated, are well informed enough to exercise voter rights. Consider, however, this: my son and daughter are both Greek citizens, though my daughter has never as yet visited Greece, and my son lived in Greece for two years as a toddler. Absent their highly unlikely return to Greece to live, mere citizenship hardly qualifies them to make voting decisions whose consequences they are unlikely to face.

Proper voting requires being informed. I like to think that I have a good understanding of Greece from being well read and from living there. However, my living experience was in the mid 2000s, and already things have changed to the point of being unrecognizable and I can hardly say I am informed, and often, I just don’t want to be informed. Everyday life takes precedence. If just a few years’ separation is an issue, imagine decades, long enough to have really no idea of what was going on, and often enough, quite naturally, to see things through the rose colored glasses of time and nostalgia. Nostalgia is never what it used to be, they say, and it is also a poor way to inform your voting.

Of course, there are many who would counter that “Greece needs us,” their talented and often well to do Diaspora to infuse a greater civic and entrepreneurial spirit into the motherland.” Well, maybe, but it is a dangerous generalization to make, and one easily countered by another generalization, that the Greek Diaspora is often more nationalistic than the Greeks in Greece. Here there is a useful parallel to draw with our northern neighbor, FYROM. Their government allowed the Diaspora to vote, and while the numbers of Slavomacedonians who actually voted was disappointing to the government, their votes often went to the most extreme nationalists. A friend from Skopje once commented to me, “Melbourne and Toronto have us by the throat,” referring to the large, often highly nationalistic communities in those cities. In many cases, people in-country are more tolerant of their neighbors and have a milder foreign policy, because they must live with their neighbors, trade with them, and suffer consequences if the neighborhood goes bad. We do not have the right to make that decision for them. It will complicate relations between homeland and Diaspora.

Greece is dysfunctional, and this pains all of us who love Greece. Its politics are abysmal (though our own American version is pretty low on the totem pole as well) but democracy is by definition messy and cumbersome, “the worst form of government,” as Churchill said, “except for all the others!” Greece is a land inspiring true devotion across distances of oceans and generations, and I do not doubt the love the Diaspora has for her, but for the reasons I wrote about, my vote to vote is no. Those who live with the consequences should vote, and we can only hope they vote wisely. If we really must vote in Greece, we ought to vote with our feet first, by moving there!

 

About Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. He and his family returned to the US after nearly a decade in Greece, the UK, and Serbia. He writes prolifically on Balkan topics. His books, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, and Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, are available from Amazon.com.