The right to participate in public and political affairs is essential for any group who seek to assert themselves in an open society. Roma—Europe’s largest minority of nearly 12 million people—are underrepresented in all aspects of public and political life. No solutions to the critical problems Roma face in the areas of housing, health care, education, and employment will be lasting without the equal participation of Roma in political life.

In some parts of Eastern Europe, Roma account for upwards of 30, 40, and 50 percent of the population but have no voting representatives in elected local councils. The lack of Roma political power contributes to employment discrimination, lack of economic opportunity, and widespread exclusion.

Without exercising political power, the Roma will remain dependent upon others for change; preyed upon by political parties; reliant on others to speak for them, to represent them in court, and to act on their behalf. The need to secure and exercise this right freely and in an informed way, without fear or manipulation, has received too little attention from organizations, institutions, and individuals focusing on the Roma.

Roma are underrepresented in political life for different reasons: lack of information and low awareness about political and electoral processes; a culture of fear around participation in the census and other civic and voter registers and frequent lack of required identity documents; reluctance by mainstream parties to include Roma candidates and to target the Roma constituency; social isolation and division within Roma communities; and vulnerability of Roma voters to electoral malpractices such as vote buying.

Achieving full Roma political and public participation begins with Roma self-organization. An important first step is raising Roma participation in national censuses through Roma-led, grassroots campaigns. Already, Roma-led campaigns have led, in one country, to a 200 percent increase in Roma census registration. Other steps towards change are improving Roma representation in NGOs and other entities who campaign for Roma rights; holding local and national governments to account so that they fulfill quotas compelling public enterprises and public services to hire a certain amount of Roma, and not just in the most menial of jobs; developing alternative Roma representatives who Roma communities can trust; focusing on voter education and turnout so that Roma communities understand what happens on voting day and what their rights are; rooting out electoral malpractices such as vote-buying and vote-brokering; calling on Roma communities and societies as a whole to demand that electoral corruption, violence, and hate speech are unacceptable and punished; calling on donors from civil society to the European Union to emphasize participation in political and public life in their funding.

Achieving full political and public participation is not just about or for Roma. It concerns every group underrepresented in or excluded from meaningful participation in public and political life and the quality and nature of democracy in Europe.

The greatest hope for change in the lives of Roma lies with Roma themselves. This change can be meaningful and lasting if Roma realize their potential in political and public life.