POLITICS & INSTITUTIONS - POLITICS

Philippe Poirier

“Elected officials are aware that their legitimacy is diminishing”



"The majority of foreign residents did not come for the climate, but for the ease of employment, so they are not at first sight very interested in political issues," says Philippe Poirier, who notes that in 2018, only 16% of foreigners who could register did so. (Photo: Maison Moderne/Archives)

"The majority of foreign residents did not come for the climate, but for the ease of employment, so they are not at first sight very interested in political issues," says Philippe Poirier, who notes that in 2018, only 16% of foreigners who could register did so. (Photo: Maison Moderne/Archives)

The abolition of the five-year residence requirement for foreign nationals to participate in local elections will improve the representativeness of municipal councils, says political scientist Philippe Poirier. But getting these potential new voters to participate could prove to be a challenge.

The  government on 2 September said it plans to scrap a five-year residency requirement for foreign voters as part of a reform of commune election laws. The proposal must be confirmed by parliament ahead of the 2023 municipal elections. Some issues remain open for discussion says Poirier, a professor at the University of Luxembourg, such as whether to uphold a one-year residency at least or whether to register foreigners to electoral lists automatically.

Is such a reform necessary?

Philippe Poirier: There is a real problem with the representativeness and legitimacy of local councils. In Luxembourg City, for example, it is not representative. Given the resident population, it could become a communal council with a French and Portuguese majority.

The elected representatives are aware that their legitimacy is diminishing and that something must be done. It is to their credit that they want to expand. It is not philanthropy, but there is a need.

There is a real problem with the representativeness and legitimacy of local councils.
Philippe Poirier

Philippe PoirierPolitical scientistUniversity of Luxembourg

Was the five-year residency requirement illegitimate?

These five years were justified insofar as they were considered as a time of learning, especially about the law. This seems a lot today, as access to information has increased with the internet and the work of the communes.

The government's announcement was made at the beginning of September. Why now?

It took place before the start of the new school year in order to set the scene for the start of the new parliamentary term, but also to mark the government's position in view of the local elections.

In addition, three ministers from the three coalition parties were present to show the cohesion of the coalition. On issues such as the economy, housing or company taxation, this is much more difficult.

Three ministers from the three coalition parties were present to show the cohesion of the coalition.
Philippe Poirier

Philippe PoirierPolitical scientistUniversity of Luxembourg

How will foreign residents react? Are they ready to register and exercise their rights from 2023?

In 2018, less than 16% of foreigners who were eligible to register signed up--so more than 80% did not register. Some social groups are not interested in voting and a letter will not be enough to encourage them. But the case of foreign residents is special.

Normally, interest in political issues increases with the level of education. But this is not the case for foreign residents. Their political interest is lower, because they are more concerned with the economic trajectory: the majority of foreign residents did not come for the climate, but for the ease of employment, so they are not at first sight very interested in political issues.

What can motivate them to vote?

It will take a huge effort from the parties, the government and the foreigners' associations.

However, one factor that no one can measure is the covid effect. The pandemic may make foreign residents more interested in Luxembourg politics, as they are subject to health policy. They are also led to identify Luxembourg's political staff--not only the minister of health, Paulette Lenert (LSAP), but also the mayors, because the communal infrastructure has helped a lot. This can be a trigger.

The pandemic may make foreign residents more interested in Luxembourg politics.
Philippe Poirier

Philippe PoirierPolitical scientistUniversity of Luxembourg

The trigger can also come from school policy, which is the responsibility of the local council. Then, the number one issue in the last legislative elections was housing, with the exorbitant prices that we know. These three issues have become stronger.

Which parties are most likely to benefit from this reform?

Until the last elections, the three most important parties for foreign residents were the DP, the CSV and the LSAP, and then Déi Gréng. Migration is now more white-collar, they are no longer workers, so they adopt the reflexes of economic liberalism embodied by the DP and CSV. As for the Greens, quality of life and the environment are themes that appeal to foreign residents. So, there is potential electorate for each party.

But there still has to be registration. If there is only a 3% or 4% difference, this will not cause a shift, but if the number of registrations increases from 16% to more than a third, then the local councils will change.

There will be debates on the conditions for implementing this reform. What will they revolve around?

The first question will be: should there be a minimum year of residence? Or nothing? Because we have to be careful about electoral transhumance. If 7,000 students want to register in Esch-sur-Alzette, that's 7,000 more voters who can determine the direction of the election, which can cause problems. So there should be no delay--except for the 33 days for registration, which may be reduced?

The latter is also an issue: should it be automatic registration? Because this is the case for Luxembourgers, but not for foreigners.

Luxembourg is a paradoxical country on the subject.
Philippe Poirier

Philippe PoirierPolitical scientistUniversity of Luxembourg

Is Luxembourg lagging behind in this area?

Luxembourg is a paradoxical country on this subject. It is a country at the forefront on the election of non-national mayors, who can be candidates after five years of residence. The other countries, while they place few restrictions on electoral level, are more demanding in terms of candidates.

And non-EU foreigners can be aldermen and candidates, which is forbidden in the vast majority of European countries. In Luxembourg, there is no such distinction.

The municipal elections take place in 2023. Does this leave enough time for this law to come into force?

The intention is commendable as regards the legitimacy of the electoral body. But the law has to be implemented, which is much more difficult. Twenty months is a very short time in view of the parliamentary work that has to be done--and in a year of economic recovery.

This story was first published on Paperjam. It has been translated and edited for Delano.