Voters in Bulgaria and Moldova will go to the polls on July 11 for general elections, both of which follow public debates over the number of polling stations to be set up for diaspora voters – an issue that has repeatedly surfaced in elections in the region.
With millions of people having emigrated from countries across Central, Southeast and Eastern Europe since the fall of communism the votes from those resident abroad but still concerned about the political situation in their home countries represent a significant minority. Most left because of the poverty, corruption and lack of opportunities in their home countries, and thus tend to be critical of the local elites. In Moldova, diaspora voters have become a central issue in the election campaign, which pits President Maia Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) against the bloc of Socialists and Communists.
The general election in Moldova follows Sandu’s victory in the presidential election last autumn, where she defied expectations to snatch the presidency away from Socialist Party leader and incumbent president Igor Dodon. The votes cast for Sandu include over 90% of those from Moldovans outside the country; photos and video footage from cities in Western Europe and the US showed huge queues outside embassies as diaspora Moldovans sought to cast their votes for their next president.
To effect real change in Moldova, however, Sandu, who has made tackling corruption a central tenet of her politics, needs a parliament in sympathy with her goals. Polls indicate this is the likely outcome, showing the PAS will be the largest party in the new parliament, possibly securing a majority. Dodon, meanwhile, has seen support for the bloc of Socialists and Communists drop.
He has been calling for more than 100 polling stations to be opened in Russia and another 100 in the Russia-backed Moldovan separatist republic of Transnistria, to balance the votes from Moldovans in Europe who are expected overwhelmingly to back Sandu’s party. This is despite the considerably larger number of Moldovans estimated to be in Western countries. The attempt to open polling stations in Transnistria has had the support of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), while members of the CEC close to Dodon’s Socialists have resisted calls by the PAS and other West-leaning parties to open more polling stations in Europe. This became the subject of a legal battle in the run-up to the vote.
“Before the snap elections of July 11, 2021, the fight to attract the diaspora vote seems to become the central theme of the electoral campaign,” wrote Denis Cenusa, energy security programme director at Chisinau-based think-tank Expert-Grup in a recent op-ed.
“As in the 2020 presidential elections, pro-EU forces are investing high hopes in the electoral contribution of the diaspora. Their pro-Russian opponents do not hide their concern about the possible undesirable impact of the diaspora on the composition of the future parliament. If the number of foreign votes received by Maia Sandu in the presidential elections is repeated (around 92% of 262,000), then it is more likely that her party, the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), will move closer to the parliamentary majority (51 of 101 deputies).”
Data compiled by Cenusa shows the number of diaspora voters soaring from 36,429 in the 2019 early parliamentary election to 262,103 in the 2020 presidential election second round.
He also pointed out that the Dodon’s Socialists and the Communist Party, which formed a pre-election alliance, are “using a hostile discourse against the diaspora in the West, which is compared to an "agent" of external influence against the sovereign interests of the population living in Moldova. Previously this idea was widely exploited in the second round of the 2020 presidential elections.”
A similar, though lower-key, dispute played out in Bulgaria between the April 4 general election, which failed to produce a parliamentary majority, and the snap general election scheduled for July 11. The parliament elected on April 4, which lasted for just over a month, removed the cap on the number of polling sections abroad as well as adopting legislation introducing machine voting in all polling stations with more than 300 voters.
Dr. Ekaterina Rashkova, assistant professor at Utrecht University’s Utrecht School of Governance, pointed out in a paper, “The Bulgarian diaspora vote: A case of a large untapped electoral potential”, that while the electoral activity of Bulgarians abroad is quite low, the diaspora is the largest foreign investor in Bulgaria, sending back over €1bn in remittances in 2018 alone. “This suggests that Bulgarians abroad still remain attached to their home country. Given the diaspora’s size (i.e. 1.3mn) in proportion to the country’s population (i.e. 7mn), there seems to be a significant yet untapped political potential in this vote,” wrote Rashkova.
As the results came in after the April 4 election, there was a clear divide between voting in Sofia and other major cities, as well as the diaspora, where people flocked to the new opposition parties, and smaller towns and rural areas where they continued to favour the established parties. The ethnic Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms has traditionally swept up the votes of Bulgarian Turks living in Turkey, but new parties There Are Such People, the political vehicle of TV host Slavi Trifonov, Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Thugs Out! whose founders include the informal leaders of the months-long anti-government protests last summer and autumn, performed well among Bulgarian voters elsewhere.
This time around the latest polls put former prime minister Boyko Borissov’s Gerb, which ruled Bulgaria for almost a decade, and There Are Such People almost level ahead of Sunday’s election.
Why the diaspora votes
A large diaspora vote isn’t a phenomenon limited to emerging Europe. However, while emigrants from developed countries such as the US or West European countries are often mobilised by issues that directly affect them (such as taxation, or in the UK’s case Brexit), those from emerging Europe are more likely to be focussed the politics of their home countries.
“A large majority of the people from Eastern Europe who emigrate do so for economic and political reasons, which means they did not agree with how things were going in the country, and that they would support new parties and opposition parties,” Rashkova told bne IntelliNews.
“Diaspora voters from Eastern Europe are still emotionally linked to their countries. Many have family there, and some want to come back. When they vote, it’s about who has the power back home and how things are going to change in the next 10 years. The biggest issue is that the countries are still very poor and still ridden with corruption.”
This has persisted over the years; the pattern of voters abroad backing the opposition has stayed the same, even while the incumbents may have changed.
“Traditionally, the diaspora in Eastern Europe has supported opposition parties, and the opposition parties after the transition to democracy were those against the former Communist Party. Now, many years later, centrist and sometimes populist parties have come to power and in many counties are accused of using similar practices as the former communists, i.e. keeping spoils for themselves, and controlling the country in a way that does not develop the public good for the [ordinary] people,” Rashkova said.
There was, however, a lesson for the mainstream opposition parties about taking the diaspora votes for granted in Romania, where the far-right Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) burst onto the political scene in late 2020. Newly formed AUR specifically targeted diaspora voters, previously seen as tilting towards the centre-right parties, and managed to score 9% of the vote in the December general election.
United in outrage
This followed several years during which the centre-left Social Democratic Party (PSD) dominated domestic politics, while members of the diaspora united with Romanians in their home country – mainly, but not exclusively, urban, educated Romanians – in protest actions against the efforts of PSD leaders to overhaul the justice system for their own benefit and undermine the fight against corruption.
Back in the first round of voting in the November 2014 presidential election a scandal erupted when many of the country’s diaspora voters, estimated at around 4mn, were unable to cast their votes because not enough polling stations had been set up, resulting in huge queues outside embassies in London, Paris and other cities with a large Romanian diaspora. The failure of huge numbers of voters to make it into the polling stations before polls closed for the day sparked mass protests in Romania, and a huge swing from the PSD’s candidate, then prime minister Victor Ponta, to his centre-right rival, Klaus Iohannis, the low-profile mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu.
The people of the diaspora were expected to lean in favour of Iohannis, the centre-right candidate. The scale of the swing from Ponta, the leader of the first-round vote, to Iohannis in the second, when he took 54.8% of the vote in the largest turnout since 1996, was also a rejection of what many saw as a deliberate attempt by the ruling PSD to exclude diaspora voters.
As the PSD stepped up its assault on the fight against corruption after its victory in the December 2016 presidential election, a series of mass anti-government protests broke out in Bucharest and other Romanian cities throughout 2017 and 2018. By summer 2018, when the protest movement was flagging, members of the diaspora home in Romania for the summer organised another protest via Facebook aimed at revitalising it. Corruption and poor governance were among the reasons why young Romanians have been leaving the country in large numbers, as bne IntelliNews reported at the time.
The unheard diaspora
Yet the urban educated Romanians that leave the country in search of highly paid positions in sectors such as IT and banking – and whom the government seeks to woo back – are not the only ones. There are hundreds of thousands more Romanians, coming from rural areas and failing industrial towns, with just secondary education behind them, who leave to pick up seasonal agricultural work or precarious jobs in services or the care sector.
It was these overlooked members of the diaspora that AUR targeted ahead of the December 2020 general election. Dr. Magda Ulceluse, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Groningen’s Faculty of Spatial Sciences, who has studied AUR’s stunning performance, assessed the diaspora voters as a highly important contributor to the party’s success. In a blog post, Ulceluse broke down the numbers, showing that of the votes from the 265,490 Romanians abroad that voted in the 2020 election, most were in six countries – France, Germany, Italy, Moldova, Spain and the UK. AUR came first in Cyprus and Italy, and second in France, Germany and Spain, taking between 27% and 38% of the vote in each country, and one quarter of all diaspora votes.
“It was the first time a party has so systematically engaged with members of the Romanian diaspora abroad, has taken such a personal approach, with a tailored message,” Ulceluse elaborated to bne IntelliNews.
“An important distinction between AUR's engagement and [that of] other, bigger parties was their grassroots approach. They recruited party members in Romania, who then connected with friends/relatives abroad, who then became recruiters themselves and organisers of group chats, events, etc. It was a word-of-mouth spreading of the party's "gospel", with people finding out about it from family, or friends or friends of friends, from people they trusted.
“Of course, it also helped that the party's message found fertile ground among this share of the population who felt disenfranchised, and [which] was disillusioned with the (unkept) promises of the other larger parties.”
Ulceluse also contrasted AUR’s active campaigning among the diaspora with the lack of systematic engagement from the mainstream parties. First, this was because the members of the diaspora that voted in Romanian elections were assumed to be mainly centre-right. Secondly, she talked of Romanians’ “ambivalent relationship” with emigration and the diaspora, leading to a failure of mainstream parties to take a stance on emigration or formulate a specific message for the diaspora.
Voting for change in Kosovo
The latest election in Kosovo also saw a rejection of established politicians by large swathes of the diaspora, whose members overwhelmingly backed Albin Kurti’s Vetevendosje (Self Determination) party, which swept to a decisive victory in February. According to the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a record number of votes came from the diaspora in the February election.
As in Bulgaria and Moldova, the election had been preceded by controversy over the diaspora vote. The Kosovo Central Electoral Commission announced plans to verify voters who live abroad by telephone, sparking strong criticism from NGOs and politicians, including former justice minister Albulena Haxhiu of Vetevendosje, who called the decision “absurd” and “illegal”.
Albania too has a large diaspora – around 1.7mn people have emigrated since the fall of communism among an electorate of 3.5mn. After the adoption of a new electoral code in 2020, there were expectations that Albanians abroad would be able to vote in the April 25 general election, but this was not realised, and became one of the many causes of contention between the ruling Socialist Party and opposition parties.
As an OSCE report pointed out, of the Albanians residing abroad the “majority could not vote due to lack of opportunity to vote from abroad and COVID-19 related travel restrictions. While foreseen as a possibility in the Electoral Code, no out-of-country voting was offered to citizens. Voters residing abroad can, however, return and vote in their respective VCs, although in practice this may have been hampered by COVID-19 measures,” the report added.
Across the region, as long as poverty, unemployment and corruption continue to push people to depart, the diaspora vote remains important in Central and Eastern Europe, as those who have left for better opportunities abroad hope for a brighter future for their compatriots back home as well.