By Dibussi Tande
On July 9, 2011, Cameroon’s parliament adopted a bill granting Cameroonians abroad the right to vote in presidential elections and referendum organized in Cameroon.
Symbolic vote of the Cameroonian Diaspora at the Esplanade du Trocadéro in Paris in July 2007 (c) Le Code
On June 13, President Biya signed it into law, thereby complying with a demand, which along with calls for the recognition of dual citizenship, had been at the center of the political demands of Cameroonians abroad for years. The new political dispensation has been received with mixed feelings within the Diaspora community with many arguing that the law falls short of expectations and does not resolve the systemic issues around organizing elections in Cameroon.
On the other hand, the Biya regime and its supporters have hailed the law as alandmark moment for Cameroonian democracy, which shores up the President’s democratic credentials.
Whatever the legitimacy of these competing claims, it is obvious that the debate over the Diaspora voting act is largely, if not primarily, driven by partisan politics. It is yet to become a dispassionate discussion about what is really needed to make the vote of Cameroonians abroad a credible and inclusive one that enriches the democratic process in Cameroon. Questions about who votes, where to vote, how the vote takes place, or if the law includes the right types of elections may seen self evident at first glance. However, the experience of other countries with a long history of voting from abroad or “external voting” indicates that the answers to these apparently simplistic questions will ultimately determine if the entire Diaspora voting edifice is real or just a façade – even in a post Biya era.
So, beyond the high-fives and enthusiastic backslapping of the Biya regime and its supporters, and beyond the acerbic vitriol of opposition activists who don’t give too much credence to the law, what exactly is the real import of the right to vote for Cameroonians abroad? What are the challenges in implementing this right, irrespective of the political context of the moment, and what are some of the strategies other countries have used to overcome these obstacles? The July 13, 2011 law will serve as the basis for this discussion.
Why Only Presidential Elections and Referendums?
According to Section 1 of the July 13 law, “Cameroonian citizens settled or resident abroad shall exercise their right to vote through their participation in the election of the President of the Republic and in referendums.” This provision has been criticized as being overly restrictive because it excludes legislative, regional, and local elections. Comparatively, however, limiting the Diaspora vote to specific types of elections, particularly national elections, is not an anomaly. For example, “British citizens living abroad can vote in UK Parliamentary and European Parliamentary elections but cannot vote in local elections or elections to devolved bodies such as the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales or Greater London Authority” [The Electoral Commission ]. In fact, only a handful of countries such as Russia and Ireland allow external voting for national and sub-national elections.
Many countries limit external voting to national elections in general, and presidential elections in particular, mainly for logistical reasons. For example, in 2007, Cameroon organized twin legislative and municipal elections in 58 administrative divisions or départements, 319 sub-divisions orarrondisssements, and in 360 municipal councils. If Cameroonians abroad had been allowed to participate in these elections, each diplomatic mission and consular office would have had to be provided with enough ballot papers for each of the 45 political parties that took part in the legislative elections and the 33 that took part in the municipal elections for each municipality, subdivision and/or division – a near impossible feat given the huge logistical challenges that election organizers in Cameroon regularly face.
Allowing Diaspora communities to take part in regional and local elections also implies that diplomatic missions have enough resources and training to determine or confirm the correct electoral district of each voter. As The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has pointed out,
“The task of determining which ballot paper each voter should receive may not then be simple, especially if the voter has left the home country a considerable time before.Neither voters nor polling site officials might be expected to have detailed knowledge of precise electoral boundaries. It may be possible to use the registration process to determine the correct location of each elector and record it in a form that is accessible at polling sites, although this
is a task that can consume considerable time and resources.” (46-47)
The potential then for error and confusion is quite huge even in the best of circumstances. In the end, many countries have concluded that the need for electoral inclusion in the case of legislative and local elections may not be worth the trouble. This seems to be the route that Cameroon is taking.
No Restrictions on who is entitled to an external vote… yet
According to the July law, all Cameroonians abroad have the right to vote provided that they “enjoy their civic and political rights and fulfill all the required legal conditions to be an elector.” (Section 2 (2)
The main complaint thus far about this particular clause is that it does not extend the right to vote to Cameroonians who have taken up other nationalities. This is to be expected considering that Cameroon does not yet recognize dual citizenship. According to Section 31 (a) of the Cameroon Nationality Code, “Any Cameroon adult national who willfully acquires or keeps a foreign nationality” loses their Cameroonian nationality.” So the issue of dual nationality has to be addressed first by the legislator before it can trickle down to voting and other rights, which is why many observers argue that the Biya regime put the horse before the cart…
Apart from its exclusion of dual citizens, Section 2(2) is very liberal and inclusive since it places no additional restrictions on Cameroonians abroad as long as they “enjoy their civic and political rights and fulfill all the required legal conditions to be an elector.”
This is not the case in many countries, including some in the West, which place restrictions on the categories of citizens in the Diaspora who can vote. These restrictions are generally based on a voter’s activity or profession (e.g., vote limited to military personnel, public officials or diplomatic staff, and their Families as in the case of Lesotho, Republic of Ireland, etc.); the voter’s intention to return to his or her home country (e.g., the Philippines); or the voter’s length of stay abroad (e.g., British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years are not eligible to register to vote in UK elections. Click here for an ongoing campaign by British overseas citizens to change this provision.
According to IDEA,
“One rationale for imposing time limits on the right to vote is that the longer citizens stay away from the home country the more they lose their ties to it. Those who have been away from the home country for a long time cannot arguably aspire to make decisions with regard to domestic politics. (94)
Those who hold a contrary view argue that in today’s global village, distance is no longer an issue as it was 20 years ago; citizens living abroad are no longer uninformed about, or cut off from what is going on in their respective countries, thanks to advancements in communications. For example, the Cameroonian student in Turkmenistan is now able to go online to listen to the same Pidgin English news on Radio Equinoxe, in real time, with the street vendor in Douala, or read the most recent issue of The Post newspaper online, even before people in Cameroon are able to buy the same issue in the streets of Bamenda or Buea. According to this school of thought, stripping citizens living abroad of their right to vote has the unintended effect of creating a feeling of alienation and disenfranchisement leading to a loss of interest in the political life of their home country.
For now, at least, Cameroon seems to have taken a less restrictive approach, although the activities of some diplomatic missions since the passage of the law seems to indicate otherwise. Before being registered on electoral rolls, potential votes must first register with the appropriate diplomatic mission or consular office, and obtain a consular card. This initial registration process may be used by the embassy to restrict voting rights. For example, the Cameroon embassy in Belgium has just launched campaign to register Cameroonians in that country. To register, Cameroonians have to present, in addition to a copy of their passport or National ID, a copy of their birth certificate, proof of employment or a student ID, and in the case of married women, a marriage certificate. How many Cameroonians abroad have their birth certificates with them? And why require a birth certificate along with a passport when a passport cannot be issued without a birth certificate? Thus, Cameroonians who who not have their birth certificates will have to return to Cameroon to get one in person, if they want to get their consular card. In the same vein, the insistence on proof of employment and/or a student ID seems to exclude the unemployed and those who may be in Belgium illegally – issues that concern the host country but not the diplomatic mission and which should have no bearing on whether a Cameroonian citizens is given a consular card or not.
It is worth pointing out that not all embassies are using this restrictive and exclusionary approach. For example, the Cameroon embassy in the neighboring Netherlands, which has also launched a campaign to register Cameroonianssimply requires that Cameroonians in that country provide one “Cameroonian identification document (e.g., Birth Certificate, National ID Card or Passport)” to obtain a consular card. This is definitely in the spirit of the July law. So unless the application decree lays down clear guidelines for registration, it is certain that in countries such as Belgium and the USA with huge anti-regime activist communities, diplomatic missions will use creative techniques to disenfranchise regime opponents.
Next in Part II
Can Diplomatic Missions organize free and fair elections?
Is it logistically possible to for Cameroonians abroad to take part in the 2011 presidential elections?