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The power to change things

File photo: voting in Cyprus

Recent by-election in Paphos highlighted lack of voting awareness among expats

By Bejay Browne

CAMPAIGNERS are urging EU residents in Cyprus to register to vote as they make up a substantial part of the electorate and many remain unaware of their rights.

EU residents, even though they can only vote in municipal and European Parliament elections – could account for around 15 per cent of voters and if they registered, this would be a powerful voice for change, according to local officials.

Linda Leblanc, the first foreign-born person to be elected to public office in Cyprus, said that unlike many other countries, a vote in Cyprus really counts, as the population is so small. “This is a chance to make your voice heard about important issues that affect you,” she said

Leblanc has been campaigning for widespread dissemination of voter information for a decade. Nine years ago she was elected as a member of Peyia council, a position she has held ever since.

The councillor said that tens of thousands of people are not exercising their rights to vote in Cyprus and having a non-Cypriot councillor was an important way of keeping informed and aware.

If more people became involved, the system would be more responsive for the good of everybody, she noted.
According to statistics supplied by the Green Party, since 2006, when EU resident citizens had the right to vote, numbers have increased, but not enough.

Areas with large expat populations such as Peyia and Tala have the most registered EU voters in Paphos. A historical list for Peyia since 2006 shows numbers grew from 308 in the first election in 2006 to 855 during the last one.

Latest figures from January this year show that in Tala 549 people are registered to vote and the total EU registered voters for Cyprus is 12,456.

Despite campaigns to inform the public of their rights and the registering process, a number of Paphos residents at least, remain misinformed or believe they can just turn up to vote at the nearest polling station, as was noted during the recent mayoral by-election.

Some were also caught out by, believing they had plenty of time to register before the next scheduled local elections.
Helen Warriner moved to Paphos two years ago and said she was planning to register to vote later on this year.

“I thought that would give me ample time before the next elections to sort any red tape out; I wasn’t expecting a by- election and am annoyed that I hadn’t registered in time,” she said.

Permanent resident Malcom Edwards said he was surprised to discover that he was unable to vote in the by- election in Paphos, as he hadn’t followed the registration procedure.

“I thought that in this day and age with everything being computerised that I would be able to turn up and vote. I understand that proof of ID is required and planned to take along all of my documents. I was surprised to find out a few days before that this isn’t possible and that I had to get a voting card. I will register to ensure that I can vote in future.”

Leblanc said that Edwards stance isn’t as strange as it may first sound, as many EU countries make better use of technology and the voter system than Cyprus. She pointed out that some countries followed a simple procedure which allows that as soon as an EU resident registers in another member state, they are automatically registered to vote.

However, she said that the tens of similar incidents in Paphos highlighted the need for better public awareness of the voting system in Cyprus.

“Even after a decade of campaigning for voter registration, some people still don’t know that they are able to vote, or in many cases how to do it. Some of it is ignorance and some of it is down to apathy.”

Agatha De Veen, a retiree, has lived in Cyprus for 15 years but isn’t yet registered to vote. “This isn’t something I have really considered. I wasn’t aware that I could vote here, I’m not really interested in politics so I don’t know if I will register in the future.”

However, Leblanc warned that this was a dangerous stance to take. She said that people may say they aren’t interested in politics but they need to understand that ‘politics’ relates to matters concerning day-to-day life. Sewerage tax, cleanliness and dogs and cats on the streets are all politics, she said.

“If you don’t vote you automatically take up a default position of being controlled by others,” she warned

The councillor noted that electoral rolls could also be used to determine the need for community services, such as a post office. Peyia’s request for a post office was approved based on the increased electoral list, so there are other benefits to the community as well, she said.

Local elections are held every five years and the next one will take place in less than two years’ time, in December 2016. To be eligible to vote, EU nationals must have been resident in Cyprus for at least six months.

Mayors and community leaders must be Cypriot nationals but EU residents are eligible to stand as candidates in both municipal and European Parliament elections, and they must be registered on special election rolls.

In order to vote in both, EU nationals must register on two, separate electoral rolls – one for municipal elections and one for EU parliamentary elections. Voter registration forms for both can be found at District Offices and Citizen Advice Bureaus.

In Paphos, Leblanc said figures showed many EU nationals registered to vote were Pontian Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanians and other Eastern Europeans. She alleges that some were coerced into voting for various reasons.

“Certainly in the past in Peyia, they have been given incentives to vote. Questions have been raised,” she said without elaborating further.

In many EU countries, Leblanc said that the electorate is able to vote online or by post. Not so here, she said, where people are made to jump through hoops to get their voting books.

She said people are not informed that the responsibility is theirs to check if their book has arrived weeks after they have registered.

“About six to eight weeks later your voting book is sent to the mukhtar. No one calls you to tell you it’s arrived. If it’s not collected, it’s then sent back to Nicosia and then after some time back down to the district office. It’s democracy gone mad.”

Leblanc said about a month prior to elections, people are usually panicking and trying to track down their book as officials won’t let people vote without it, even with other forms of ID.

“This happened in the recent mayoral elections in Paphos; EU resident voters were turned away as they hadn’t been able to track down their voting books.”

However, she noted that in the past, determined EU residents in Tala, Kouklia and Peyia had managed to secure representation on local councils.

She said: “There is a long tradition of partisan voting in Cyprus and by not registering you are surrendering to the existing regime.”

Electoral rolls are updated every three months –January 2, April 2, July 2, and October 2.

Voting application forms are available at all District Offices and Citizen Advice Bureaus in Cyprus and at www.pegeiacoalition.org

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