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Facultad de Derecho
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Recortes de Prensa

Foreigners with vote and voice

Sur in English, 31 | 05 | 2007 - Reportaje

There are many among us who feel as much a “Marbellí”, “Coíno” or “Antequerano” as their neighbour despite the fact that they were born hundreds or even thousands of kilometres from the Costa del Sol. Their accents and physical features are always a give-away. However differences of origin and mother tongue do not stop residents speaking passionately about their adopted municipalities and wanting to do their bit to change things for the better. In fact dozens of residents who originate from countries all over the world have gone one step further and are standing as candidates in the local elections this Sunday May 27th. After all there’s no law that says you have to be born in a town to be on its council: belonging to the European Union or having Spanish nationality and being over the age of 18 are the only requirements.

In some cases these candidates got involved through their own political motivation, but the majority were approached by the parties. In the province of Malaga there are foreign 32,074 votes at stake and in some municipalities they could tip the balance towards the left or the right. And who better to attract the immigrant vote than a compatriot?

“All the parties are looking for foreigners to join their lists; after all in Coín alone there are more than 2,000 on the population census”, explains Samantha Espinosa, who is in eighth position on the PP ticket for Coín. With a Swedish mother and Cuban father, she was actually born in Malaga but has lived almost all her life in London. Now, eight months pregnant, she has settled with her family in Coín.

Together with her party she set up a campaign at the end of last year to inform foreigners of their rights. “We distributed leaflets and put up posters explaining the importance of joining the population census so that they could have a say in the elections”, adds Espinosa.

In fact misinformation is one of the main problems they have come up against. In order to vote in the municipal elections - only European Union and Norwegian citizens are eligible - residents must be registered on the official population census and express their intention to vote on a separate form. Many residents are still unclear about this last procedure.

Nevertheless Samantha Espinosa believes that the attitude of those who choose to come to live in Spain “is changing radically”. Now they are not exclusively retired couples who come looking for no more than the sunshine they lack in their countries of origin; “there are a lot of young families who want a better life for their children”. Therefore they are a lot more interested in what is going on around them. “I would like to see a lot of improvements in my town: perhaps a nursery for my children and an old people’s residence for my parents”, she explains.

A mixture of cultures

That is also the case of 33 year old Aleksandra Broch, who is number 19 on the PP list for Estepona. She was born “into a very traditional family” in Poland, and married a man of Scandinavian origin. “We chose Spain as a neutral country, we tried Estepona and and loved it”. She explains how she speaks to her children in Polish and their father speaks to them in Danish. When they are all together they resort to English. And when they go out they use Spanish. “It’s a great advantage because you bring the values of different cultures into the family”, she explains.

Her work in the tourism industry brings her into contact with people from a wide range of countries. “The PP showed me their project for foreign residents and it inspired me” adds the young Polish woman. She is convinced of the importance of integrating foreigners into society and for them to be represented in municipal affairs. “If we all fight for our own, with small steps we can go a long way”, she adds. That is why she believes someone should act as a bridge to connect them. “Foreigners feel more comfortable speaking to other foreigners”, admits Broch.

Gerardo Fortes, a 51 year old Spanish-Argentinian, agrees that it is in politicians’ interest to have people of different nationalities on their lists. “It shows that a party is concerned about social justice”, he points out. His name is on the PA (Partido Andalucista)’s list for Antequera because he admits that he is concerned about what is going on around him. “I don’t go through life with my head down, I want to know what I can improve or criticise”, he explains. He adds that many seem surprised that he, a foreigner, is standing for election. “It is always more comfortable to stay and home and say nothing but I have a voice and a vote”. What’s more his objectives are clear: “I fight for social rights, so that things are fair and we can all live happily”.

However there is a another face to the foreign community in the province of Malaga. Lina Alexandra Sasaran arrived in Marbella from Rumania four years ago. “I had no residence or work permits and I made a point of finding out my rights”, she recalls. And so she started to learn more about the law and gradually got involved in local politics.

“Now my papers are all in order no one can cheat me, they can’t humiliate me and I don’t have to stand for anything if I don’t want to”, explains 25 year old Lina. She claims that in IU (Izquierda Unida) she found a party that was “realistic and concerned about the situation of immigrants”. She is in 24th place on their list for Marbella, where she hopes to be able to do her little bit to help “refloat” the town. “Marbella is starting to sink; and if I can see this in just four years, what must those who have always lived here be thinking?” If she had the chance to devote her time to one particular area her choice would be easy: immigration. “I’ve been through it personally; I know what it’s like”, she concludes.

Chinese origins

Immigration policy is also one of the main issues that motivated Wei Chun Ku to get involved in politics. She was born in Taiwan and came to Spain 21 years ago to study languages. Here she met her husband and stayed. “I feel closer to the foreigners, I know how they feel”, points out Wei, number six on the PSOE (Socialist party) list for Torremolinos. “I have a Socialist friend who always spoke about his party with great passion, and it was contagious”, she recounts.

Wei is in close contact with the Chinese community which is growing in this coastal municipality. She claims that now they even outnumber the British. She learns about their problems first hand because “they feel more comfortable” with her and believes that the Town Hall could help them integrate in society. “The Chinese don’t stop working, many want to learn languages, but they don’t have time. And that is a great barrier for them”, she maintains.

Forty-nine year old Saloua Bannani experiences a similar situation in Marbella. Her knowledge of Arabic brings her in closer contact with the Maghrebi community in the town. Born of Moroccan father and Spanish mother she admits to feeling privileged to have grown up between two cultures. Her political motivation and left-wing views have led her to standing in eighth position on the IU ticket for Marbella. She also admits that she has a “special leaning” towards immigration. “Understanding different cultures helps you connect with other groups, know how they feel and how they suffer”, she adds.

For some foreign candidates this experience in Spanish politics gives them a taste of what they would like to see in their countries of origin. Stenis Ilieva, a 32 year old Bulgarian, maintains that he will go back to his country as soon as he can. Meanwhile he is also standing as a candidate on the IU list for Marbella. “My parents worked for 40 years and now the State cannot support them; things there should be how they are here, where people can walk the streets in safety”, points out Stenis, who admits that he can’t wait for this Sunday’s elections.

Only three out of ten Europeans resident in the province plan to vote in Sunday’s elections

The municipal elections have not attracted the attention of the majority of foreign residents in the province. Only three out of ten Europeans registered on their local population census will be able to have their say in the polls on Sunday. The non-Spaniards who want to exercise their right to vote in municipal elections must firstly be on the census and additionally have filled in a form to express their intention to vote. Only EU citizens and Norwegians - by means of a special agreement between Norway and Spain - have the right to vote in local elections.

And so of the 114,867 Europeans registered on the census, only 32,074 have expressed their intention to vote in the elections; that is, 27.9 per cent of the total, according to statistics from the Electoral Role Office at the National Statistics Institute (INE).

Low turn-out

Only eight of the 27 nationalities voting on Sunday have more than 30 per cent of potential voters registered on the electoral role and the vast majority of these are from northern and central Europe. And so 31.6% of the resident Belgians will be able to vote (1,026 of a total of 3,238), 30.8% of the Danes (1,328 of 4,304), 34,2% of the French (1,735 of 5,059), 31.2% of the Irish (579 of 1,851), 38,8% of the Maltese (7 of 18), 30.7% of the Dutch (1,491 of 4,850), 31.1% of the British (15,525 de 49,760) and 32.4% of the Swedish (1,350 of 4,157).

The lowest rates of participation are noted among residents from the countries that have most recently joined the EU. Only 7.1 per cent of the Bulgarians have expressed their intention to vote, 6.3 per cent of the Hungarians, 7.4 per cent of the Estonians 6.2 per cent of the Slovenians and none of the Cypriots.

One of the clearest cases of indifference when it comes to these local elections can be seen among the Norwegians: only 2.7 per cent of the 2,029 registered residents in the province have expressed their desire to vote.

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