Political Rights of Roma
7 February 2004
In the past thirteen years, the democratic processes in Central and Eastern Europe have dispelled two illusions - or rather false assumptions - about the representation and participation of Roma in public life. The first one is that Romani concerns can be effectively addressed and their rights promoted within the ordinary political process by individuals in publicly elected bodies who are not necessarily Roma. And the second one is that a token number of Roma in the public administration can make a difference in policy formation and implementation on Roma. Despite their numerical strength in several countries, Roma in Central and Eastern Europe remain to date un- or underrepresented in political life due to the fact that they do not stand equal chances to participate and to exercise their political rights. Romani exclusion is even more pronounced in Western Europe: the total number of public officials in European Union member states who state that they are Romani can literally be counted on the fingers of one hand.
In the ideal situation, when Roma hold the citizenship of the states where they live, and when they vote at national and local elections, it has been assumed and claimed that as long as the publicly elected bodies are representative of the whole citizenry, part of which are Roma, Roma are represented too. The fallacy of this argument is all too obvious for everyone who is familiar with the gap between Roma and non-Roma in every sphere of social life on the one hand, and the dearth of government action to remedy this situation, on the other. Furthermore, everyday expressions of intolerance towards Roma and the bitter envy demonstrated by non-Roma towards initiatives aimed at gaining Roma equal opportunities are clear signs that large parts of the majority populations in various countries do not perceive the solution of the problems facing Roma as beneficial for the larger society.
In this issue of Roma Rights, we have published a story about the election of the Gypsy Minority Self-Government (an official consultative body to the local government) in the Hungarian village of Jaszladany (see article on p. 37 of this issue of Roma Rights). This story may seem too specific to be taken as an epitome of the state of Romani representation in a number of Central and Eastern European countries today. However, there are a number of lessons to be drawn from it. In brief, in Jaszladany, the non-Romani minority mobilised itself and outvoted the Romani minority during the minority self-government elections. The current Gypsy Minority Self-Government (MSG), formed in October 2002, ended up having four persons identifying themselves as non-Romani out of a total of five members. This situation is not in violation of the law. Neither domestic nor international norms require ethnic representation proper. In the aftermath of the election, however, the difference between the Romani representatives and the non-Romani representatives in the Gypsy MSG became conspicuous. The predominantly non-Romani Gypsy Minority Self-Government in Jaszladany did not protest the establishment of a local private school created to segregate the local Romani children from the non-Romani children, and the school started operating in the autumn of 2003. By comparison, the previous Gypsy MSG - composed of Roma - fought against the establishment of the private school with all the legal powers available to it, and had effectively blocked establishment of the school.
A similar scenario recently unfolded in the local elections in 2003 in Bulgaria, although under completely different circumstances. In the northwestern Bulgarian town Vidin, the battle between two candidates for mayor (representing the two major political parties in Bulgaria) was decided by the anti-Romani vote (see p. 73 of this issue of Roma Rights). Ethnic Bulgarians mobilised with the active support of local media to vote for a candidate who did not make any commitments to local Roma. The candidate who the citizens of Vidin wanted to keep out of power had, according to his detractors, endangered the city with his negotiations with the Vidin's sizeable Romani community (about 20% of the total population of the city).
While the two examples above are somewhat different, parallels cannot be ignored. In both cases, non-Roma perceived the concerns of Roma as alien and even hostile to their own interests. In both instances, the majority tended to vote for those candidates who were least sensitive to Romani concerns. This kind of feeling prevailing among the majority population, renders it difficult for even the most enlightened political leaders to promote equal opportunity policies for Roma.
To say that Roma have never had ethnic representatives in publicly elected bodies, however, would be wrong. In most of the parliaments of Central and Eastern Europe in the post-communist period, there have been at least and often at most one Romani representative elected on the party list of a mainstream party. In some instances, such as in Romania for example, Roma have a single reserved seat. In local politics, Roma have secured even more representatives. The experience of the Romani representatives in national and local politics, however, has in many cases deteriorated rather than improved the prospects of Romani political representation. The practice of placing one or two Romani representatives on national elected bodies has legitimised tokenism in Romani representation. While the Romani representatives, whose placement on the majority party lists is often advertised as an expression of the good will of the majority party to tackle Romani problems, have increased the chances of a given mainstream party to win Romani votes, their recruitment to the respective party has almost never resulted in any meaningful role in shaping the party's policy agenda with regard to Roma. Nor has the presence of Roma in mainstream parties guaranteed any commitment by the respective party to Roma policy. The inclusion of Roma in mainstream party lists has in most cases been perceived by both sides as a kind of mercy on the part of the party leadership, rather than a commitment to Romani policy. Romani representatives elected in this way have in most cases been caught in a vicious circle of balancing allegiance to the party which elected them and allegiance to the Romani constituency which expects them to address its concerns. That these two are incompatible (perhaps not inherently, but at least for the time being) is demonstrated, among other things, by the fact that most of the Romani elected MPs have not been re-elected in subsequent elections.
The second fallacy that should be addressed is the assumption that a token number of Roma in the public administration can have any impact on Roma-related policies. The model existing in Central and Eastern Europe of placing one or two Romani individuals in low-ranking positions in a limited number of public offices has by all evidence failed to lead to any satisfactory policy-formation and policy implementation on Roma in these countries. This model, again, has proved to be more damaging than beneficial for Roma. In addition, lack of targeted action to prepare Roma for positions in the public administration has also left many of them ineffective. The effect has been alienation between Romani communities which expected to see their needs addressed, and their representatives who did not have the powers and the knowledge to fulfil expectations. The more serious effect has been the persistent undermining in the public consciousness of the feasibility of Romani participation in public affairs.
Political mobilisation of Roma is the obvious response to the current situation of exclusion from the political processes. Mobilisation has taken place in the past and is underway in the present, as can be seen from a number of articles in this edition. However, mobilisation alone does not suffice to overcome the numerous barriers facing Roma in the political sphere. In order to reverse the history of Roma as a disenfranchised and weak minority - a minority burdened by factors including a lack of political will on the part of mainstream politicians to integrate Roma politically, a lack of a critical mass of Roma in politics, and a lack of mechanisms to compensate for their weakness, more than grass-roots action is required.
Political rights cannot be measured by the existence of laws guaranteeing democratic principles. Rather, account needs to be taken primarily of the citizen's capability to exercise these rights. The case of Roma clearly demonstrates that the right in principle to participate in a democratic system does not guarantee inclusion in practice. The state should fulfill its primary obligation to guarantee equal rights for everyone. In the case of Roma, this obligation should translate into affirmative action policies (to tackle racial discrimination in all spheres of social life), as well as policies targeted at increasing the participation of Roma in public life, through actions such as political education programmes to change attitudes among party leaders and members, promotion of Roma minority candidates for public office, and voter education.