Letting the diaspora vote in Jamaica?

Last week, the Gleaner wrote an editorial, ‘Fuller embrace of diaspora’. I had a few reactions, which I sent to the editor, based on a number of considerations, one of which was that for most of my life I was part of that diaspora. Anyway, while the editor decides whether to publish my comments or not, I’ll use my own bully pulpit to share my opinions. 

Dear Sir,

The idea of more fully embracing Jamaica’s diaspora is laudable, as you try to explain in your leader ‘Fuller embrace of diaspora’. But, we need to make sure we don’t go running down blind alleys or into dead-ends. Embracing the diaspora need never extend to giving them voting rights. In fact, with France, many expatriates openly acknowledge that their being outside of the country temporarily or for extended periods reduces their claim on involvement with national politics. They often understand that being free of national taxes has a corollary in not being able to vote. We can argue both sides of that till kingdom come.

You cite France and its relatively new onzieme circonscription, which created constituencies outside the national borders and allowed French citizens abroad to vote in 2012 for representatives in the National Assembly.

France was clear in being able to identify its citizens abroad, and place them into 11 distinct regions, and allow them to vote for candidates there.  

 We would, at least, need to assure those living in Jamaica that we had foolproof ways to locate and confirm ‘Jamaicans’ so conveniently. 

We also have to convince people about the true meaning of any overseas constituency, beyond being a net into which we put some Jamaicans. Would we be able to ‘do anything’ else in these places? If, like the French version, these overseas candidates are really to ‘fight for’ the needs of their overseas constituents, what kind of ‘national’ politics would that create?

We’d also need to think clearly about what people’s decisions to go abroad represent. For some, it’s really disengagement from national activities, and they may reflect that by having plans to change nationality, or becoming involved in local politics where they now live. Would we want to reward that by letting them still hold power to determine Jamaican national affairs?

At the root of such considerations is what it means to be part of a nation. France has a long and clear history of its nationhood. Do we? 

One clear problem of trying to harness the diaspora is whether the mere fact that one remains a citizen confers rights to representation when outside the country. Once Jamaicans leave do they truly and fully want to remain part of national politics? If the answer is yes, then, how is that demonstrated? Do people ensure that they remain foreigners abroad, so that they do not dilute their demonstrated citizenship? Do they ensure that their offspring remain citizens, rather than take on citizenship of the new host country? Do they strive to continue to pay taxes ‘at home’, even if that is in addition to paying taxes in the host country? Do they try to retain a certain residency status by returning home for prescribed periods?

If the idea is ‘to gather the intellectual and material capacities of Jamaicans, wherever they are’, there are many ways to do that which do not require any form of eligibility for representation. As suggested often, one can have ‘funds’ or ‘bonds’ that allow clear the diaspora to make financial participation in national development. 

I think we need to carefully discuss harnessing capacities and representation, and not conflating them or even mentioning them in the same breath. They are separate and quite different.