Czechs abroad call for introduction of postal vote; turnout expected low at embassies

Aja Vrzanova is voting in the USA, photo: CTK

According to estimates, some two million people of Czech extraction live outside the Czech Republic. Some 300,000 out of those have Czech citizenship and are therefore entitled to elect deputies to the lower house of the Czech parliament. It was not always the case. Czechs living abroad had their first chance to vote in the previous election four years ago after a law had been passed to that effect. But fewer than 4,000 of them turned up to cast their ballots at the Czech Republic's embassies and consulates around the world. Expectations are similar this time around.

Aja Vrzanova is voting in the USA,  photo: CTK
If you are a Czech citizen living in a foreign country you cannot take part in the election unless you have registered with your local embassy by a certain date. Only 5,000 Czechs living abroad did so in time for this year's deadline. After the previous election, many people blamed the low turnout among Czechs abroad on the fact that voting has to be done in person and there is no possibility of a postal vote, unlike in many other countries, including the Czechs' former compatriots, Slovakia. Some Czech organisations abroad have gone so far as to call the present system discriminatory and complained that the Czech Republic is not really interested in the foreign vote.

In the meantime a bill to introduce a postal vote has been put forward, but it has yet to be passed. Edvard Outrata is deputy chairman of the Senate.

"We do allow voting in foreign countries, at embassies and consulates, but of course, the distances that people would have to travel to vote are quite big, and so the problems of voting abroad are quite high. So we thought a correspondence vote was worth the trouble to give our citizens abroad this opportunity - and for that matter to allow anybody who is anywhere, whether he is a resident of the Czech Republic or not, to simply vote in this manner because there are also people who are resident in the Czech Republic but don't happen to be on the territory or close to an embassy or consulate."

It's not only the distances Senator Outrata mentions that deter people from voting. Some also find the technical procedure too complicated. Alexandra Krusova is first secretary at the Czech Republic's embassy to Belgium. She explains what one needs to do to be able to vote.

"Czech citizens can cast their votes at our embassy if they put their name on the electoral register. The other option is to have a special voter ID issued in the Czech Republic. The registration must be completed 40 days ahead of the election, which means on April 23rd this year. They need an ID card or a passport and - in the case of Belgium - some Belgian document proving they have long-term residence here."

There are around 5,000 Czechs living in the Belgian capital Brussels, most of them working for European institutions. One of them is interpreter Libor Ott. He is one of those who did not mind the paperwork.

"Well, I had to go over to the Czech embassy and register on the voting list. That was it and it wasn't too difficult. I wasn't too bothered - it's a fifteen-minute walk from where I live, so I just went over and signed a piece of paper that puts me on the voting list. And that was all."

On the other side of the globe, Katerina Vondrova has decided to give this year's election a miss. As a citizen of both the Czech Republic and Australia she could compare the two countries' systems of expat voting.

"When I was living in Prague, I voted in the Australian elections. I registered when I moved to Prague and when the election came up, I was sent via mail forms to fill out, to complete and post them back to the nearest office of Australia, be that the embassy or the consulate and that was it. I voted and it was very simple. I didn't need signatures and approvals and powers of attorney. So that was very simple. I think people living in Perth would much rather vote by a postal vote rather that travel to Canberra, which just for illustration is the same distance as if you travel from London to Istanbul."

While Katerina says none of her Czech friends in Australia are going to vote, Libor says many of his colleagues in Brussels have travelled home for the weekend to cast their ballots. But he says they would welcome the possibility to vote by post.

"Well, they all would! It would make it so much easier. As it is, you have to go somewhere twice and present yourself in person whereas just getting a piece of paper and sending it somewhere would make it all so much easier, also for people who don't live in the same city as the embassy."

Deputy chairman of the Senate, Edvard Outrata, says however that people might have other reasons for not turning up than distances or a dislike of paperwork.

Photo: CTK
"Maybe we are doing too much, arranging too big an administrative hassle in a situation where few people then use the opportunity. Now for all that I said, there are quite a few people living in the cities where we have embassies and consulates and very few come to vote. So the question always again arises whether all this is worth it. The more fundamental question is not generally felt but I find that that should also be mentioned. It is always a question whether somebody who is not resident and does not want to become a resident of the Czech Republic should vote.

"Because I, for example, am a Canadian citizen, and I could vote at the embassy in Canadian elections but I don't. Because I am not resident of Canada and in a way it is a question whether I should influence who rules Canada. And by the same token, probably, many of Czech expatriates might feel the same way. Anyway, the easiest thing and the one generally accepted in Europe is to allow people to vote wherever they are and to make it as easy as possible. And in the sense of this, the idea of a correspondence vote would be fine. We will probably resubmit it to the newly elected lower house once we get over the election now. We'll see if something can be done. So I hope it'll be passed in the future."

This year Czechs abroad were choosing from a list of candidates issued for the South Bohemian region. Now that the polling stations have closed, the results are being sent back home both by post and electronically. We are soon to find out whether the turnout abroad has been any bigger than four years ago.