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Your vote counts: Register now for Belgium's local elections this year
Non-Belgian EU citizens have had the right to vote in - and stand for - local elections in Belgium since 2000. Non-EU foreigners have been able to do the same since 2004, as long as they have been a resident for at least five years.
But a very small percentage have taken advantage of this right. Considering that a third of the voting-age public in Brussels fits in this category, it’s clear that if they did vote they could have a sizeable impact on who would be elected and what the city’s policies would be.
“By not registered to vote, EU and non-EU citizens are letting Belgian citizens decide for them their quality of life in their local borough," says Tom Huddleston, from Migration Policy Group.
"Obviously if people feel that everything is well-run in their borough they don’t need to go and vote, but if they do complain and think that things could be better for their children, for their neighbours, then they should consider voting.
"They probably have some ways that they would like to see their borough improve, get certain things done and the power is actually theirs to demand that political parties adopt the positions that they want to see in the city.
MPG has been looking at new ways of informing people about their rights - to motivate them and inspire them to make them understand that they have a local stake in their community and should have their voice heard.
Getting the word out
So why is turnout so low among non-Belgians? Huddleston says the boroughs have not done a lot to inform and encourage expats to register. "It’s really only foreigners who need this sort of information and support in order to consider registering to vote," he says. "The boroughs have been trying to make it easier but they don’t always publicise it."
In the 2012 local elections, most of the town halls around Brussels allowed residents to submit their application by email or online - but Huddleston says more needs to be done to reach the international community, through clubs and associations for example.
"One thing that I would definitely suggest is that if you have voted or registered to vote, print out 10 more applications and give them to your family and friends. And maybe bust some of the myths they have and help them see how their interests could be better served in Belgium.
"I would also say that if you are running an informal group or association, you can put it on the agenda and spend 10 or 15 minutes explaining it to people - because it’s really by word of mouth and the advice of a friend or family member that this information can get out."
Research by Migration Policy Group found almost half of foreigners in Belgium did not vote because being obliged to vote scared them, when, in reality, sanctions for not voting are rare and as foreign voters they can easily deregister themselves if they no longer wish to cast their ballot.
Another common myth is that by registering to vote in Belgian local elections, expats lose their vote in their home country. "That’s not true," says Huddleston. "If you vote here locally it has no effect on your right to vote at home. It’s only in the European elections that you can’t vote in two different countries at the same time."
Ready to register?
You must register by 31 July for the October elections, and it is the same deadline if you wish to deregister. You can find an application form on the website of local association Objectif (which specialises in informing people about their rights), or on the federal government website. Some boroughs have put the application form on their own website.
"All you have to do is print it out and sign it," says Huddleston. "It’s not a bad idea to make a two-sided copy of your Belgian ID but that’s not required." The form can sent by post. Most boroughs accept it by email, or alternatively you can deposit it directly at the population or electoral affairs department.
Before the election, you will receive a confirmation that you are registered on the electoral list. You need very limited French or Dutch to fill in the form - and when you vote, most boroughs have electronic voting systems that are very clear and visual so anyone with very limited knowledge can easily decide who they want to vote for.
Huddleston concludes: "If you feel you need more information in English, bring together 20, 50, 100 of your friends, your church group or other association and see if they would be interested in inviting local politicians to come and seak. If you tell the politicians that it will have to be in English or they will not be able to reach out to these voters, they will find a way to speak to you in English because then you will be 50 or 100 voters - you will count.
"There are more and more foreign citizens who are putting themselves forward as candidates, and there are already non-Belgian councillors, for instance Bertrand Wert in Ixelles is French, he works at the EU and he’s fluent in English. So by reaching out to foreign candidates you might get an even better view of how these parties work and they can even explain how it works in Belgium."