The Power of the Ballot Box for Roma in Europe
By Zeljko Jovanovic
If the six-million strong Roma community of the European Union were organized as a nation state, we would qualify for thirteen seats in the European Parliament—as many as Denmark, Finland, or Slovakia. But the EU is a union of states, not of people.
Since our electorate is divided amongst the countries of the EU, our interests are dramatically under-represented in Brussels. There are as many Roma and Travelers in France as there are citizens of Malta; there are as many Roma in Spain as there are people in Luxembourg; and there are twice as many Roma in Romania than the population of Cyprus, and each of these countries sends six MEPs to the Parliament.
In 2004, two MEPs who declared openly their Romani orign—Livia Jaroka and Viktoria Mohacsi—were elected in Hungary. In 2009, Jaroka and Kinga Gonz, also from Hungary, were the most supportive MEPs. The target for MEPs who will vocally promote the Roma cause should be thirteen, and not two.
Within the national boundaries that define the electoral system there are many obstacles to the representation of Roma interests across the EU. Generations of official oppression and violence against Roma have enshrined a deep suspicion of government. For good reason, Roma fear being counted in a census or on a voters’ register in case the information is used against them.
Because of systematic economic deprivation, Roma who do register to vote are more vulnerable to vote-buying than other groups. A Roma vote can be “bought” with a payment of money or food. But it can also be acquired by threats of violence or intimidation or through the withholding of social welfare benefits. Loan sharks who prey on Roma can extort a vote from someone who may owe them money. Vote-buying and other forms of manipulation are by no means confined to Roma. They are also orchestrated by parties in the mainstream against vulnerable groups who, like the Roma, have no influence on the electoral system by legitimate means.
The Roma voters are caught in a vicious circle. The lack of political power contributes to a widespread impoverishment marked by social exclusion and violence. These in turn compound the Roma’s political disorganization that is characterized by apathy and mistrust.
In spite of these obstacles, Roma communities are becoming increasingly aware of the underlying causes of their own predicament. The way forward is to spread the word amongst the Roma about the positive experiences we have had at the local level of European politics.
Take the Roma of the small town of Marginenii de Jos in Romania. Over the past 20 years, they have learned how to use the power of the ballot box to improve their lives. They have heating and gas in their homes, the streets are paved and lit, schools have been renovated and the community has built a church, a sports field and a pharmacy. In 1992, Roma elected Tudor Gheorghe, their first representative to the local council. Today, Roma make up 40 percent of the town’s electorate and they are represented by six of the fifteen members of the municipal council.
Or take the Roma community in Aghia Varvara in Greece. According to the local leader Manolis Rantis, the Roma make up ten percent of the population and they do not face the same kind of problems familiar to Roma in other municipalities. Rantis says this is because the Roma have been well organized for decades. Their association was founded in 1939, survived the Second World War and the Civil War that followed, and it remains the means by which the local Roma leadership protects its economic and political interests.
For 40 years, they have had two representatives on the 27-member municipal council. The community produced its first doctor of Romani origin in 1960, and this encouraged others from the community to support the education of their children. Today, there are 40 students in their final year of secondary school and at least ten of these will go on to university.
What can we learn from these communities? Crucially, Roma in Marginenii de Jos and Aghia Varvara demonstrate that Roma can succeed on their own terms, without help from EU and donor funded projects.
The fact that Roma are succeeding here independently means that they are ignored by Roma experts, researchers, and the media. The majority of them are not miserable or poverty-stricken, so no one is taking photos or analyzing the causes of their failure or sending aid. In short, these Roma don’t fit the stereotype. The way forward is to spread the word amongst the Roma about how our organized vote can bring positive changes in the lives of people.
The voting strength of the Roma exists only in its potential. The numbers themselves are meaningless without effective leadership. It is leadership at the local level that is the key to Roma success. The leaders we produce must be grounded in the values of justice, accountability. They must be committed to the public good, not to private gain. We know from experience that leaders do not spring up overnight; they must be encouraged and nurtured.
Everyone in the Roma community knows politicians who have failed to deliver on their promises, but we must not be discouraged. Mainstream politicians have well-earned reputations for failing to keep their word on a much bigger scale. But it would be too easy to dismiss the benefits of a well-organized vote, not just for Roma, but all Europeans be they rich or poor, high school dropouts or PhDs, men or women, Muslims or Christians. Ignoring an election because of a few corrupt politicians is like leaving school because of a few bad classes.
There is no doubt that Roma voters in Europe are learning these lessons and getting stronger at the local, national and European levels. To an unprecedented extent, they are part of the EU electoral debate in Greece, Italy, Romania, Croatia, and the Czech Republic. The only question is the speed with which this trend will develop.
The EU, together with international and private supporters of the Roma have a role to play. Besides the EU funds, the more support they commit to helping Roma voters and leadership, the faster Roma will be able to experience the difference in their daily lives.
We are the most resilient group in Europe. No other community has started where we did, survived what we did and still thrives as we do. But many of us are not satisfied with simply surviving, even though that is a struggle for majority of Roma. If we can organize our voters, we can begin to make changes in schools, in the workplace, in medical centers and on the streets of many towns in many regions of Europe—in Southern Spain, Eastern Slovakia, northeast Hungary; in many municipalities in Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, the Czech Republic, the UK, France, and Austria. Here, and and in every place where we have politically important voting potential, we can make a difference, together with other people who share the same problems and aspirations. The EU elections are an opportunity to show that.
Not just Roma, but all voters who care about social justice must seek out and vote for candidates who share our ideals, and who will make an impact on the lives of marginalized and disadvantaged people all over Europe.