15 April 2013

Croatia’s EU election is more important for some than others

Croatia voted yesterday to elect 12 Members of the European Parliament, in preparation for the country’s accession to the European Union on 1 July. The measly turnout of 20.74% indicates that most Croatians considered the election unimportant. But for around 16,000 people yesterday was the first time that they were treated like citizens. These are people who are deprived of legal capacity. Under the guardianship system they are restricted from making decisions about their life. MDAC has been working with Croatian counterparts to reform this system, and reforms are already underway. Last December, after a much advocacy by NGOs and the Disability Ombudsperson, the Croatian Parliament adopted a law which specifies that people under guardianship are allowed to vote.

Broadcast from the Croatian National TV, 14 April 2013. At 4m40s the back voice says that the elections are special for another reason: it is the first time that people under guardianship are given the right to vote in Croatia. The first interviewee says that she was very happy to have been given a chance to vote for the first time in her life, saying that she had voted in the elections for the European Parliament. The second interviewee says that it hadn’t been difficult to vote, though it gave her the jitters.


The instrumental and expressive value of voting

In Croatia there are four Ombudsperson offices and one focuses on disability specifically. I spoke with Branka Meić, Advisor to the Croatian Disability Ombudsperson (and alumna of MDAC’s summer school 2011!) on the phone from Zagreb this morning. “The government took its commitment seriously by registering people in the election roll,” Branka said. “People under guardianship are proud to be able to participate in the elections, as the right to vote was previously denied to them. The election was important in raising public awareness about disability. For the first time, the public saw people who are usually totally excluded and in institutions were deprived of a right which all of us take for granted.”

Branka highlighted that people with disabilities want a voice in how their country is governed. That may be obvious to you, but the prevailing attitude of many politicians I have spoken to are of the view that one must filter out the votes from people who they (the politicians) think are crazy or incompetent. Voting is not only important given the instrumental value of choosing who you want as your representative, it’s an important label of citizenship too. We degrade democracy when we deny someone the right to vote. If you’re a human rights geek, you can read more about the expressive value of law in a book chapter I wrote a couple of years ago. Some of the ideas are summarised in a speech I gave to the Venice Commission in June 2011.

The right to vote is linked to ideas of citizenship and building inclusive societies. Without the right to vote, how can people engage in shaping policies which affect them? How can they be involved in monitoring laws which are supposed to benefit them? How can people demand human rights when politicians can respond by saying “You are a political nothing”?

The International Disability Alliance recently issued a bumper publication focusing on the right to political participation. I recommend it to you. Of particular relevance is Branka’s piece about the Disability Ombudsperson’s role in the Croatian reforms. And in a separate article, Kristijan Grđan from the NGO Shine lays out how civil society pressured the government to make the changes. Don’t forget to read the article by Thomas Hammarberg (MDAC’s Honorary President).

A video produced by the Croatian NGO the “Association of Self-Advocates”, and the democracy NGO “GONG” through a project financed by the European Commission.


One person one vote: it’s hardly controversial any more

The right to universal suffrage is a key pillar of MDAC’s advocacy. We and the NGO Shine highlighted political participation in our 2011 report, “Out of Sight: Human Rights in Psychiatric Hospitals and Social Care Institutions in Croatia.” In the same year we coordinated a Europe-wide campaign called “Save the Vote” which resulted in the Venice Commission amending a discriminatory policy. And last year we participated in a briefing for the UN Human Rights Committee on the right to vote. You can read a summary by four of my colleagues about the work we are doing in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.

While Croatia has made its elections inclusive before even joining the EU, the majority of EU Member States still deny the vote to people under guardianship. It’s time that others jumped on the election bandwagon. European Parliamentarians: what are you doing to make sure that people with disabilities can vote for you? Human rights NGOs, democracy think-tanks, election observers, the OSCE: what are you doing in the fight for universal suffrage? 

photo credit: Paco CT via photopin cc