Why Roma Political Participation Matters

Roma communities in many places officially do not exist due to their absence from official registers, including the census.

by Open Society Foundations, June 11, 2019

Three participants discuss their experience at Barvalipe, the Roma pride summer camp, in July 2012. Reflecting on the journey they had taken since the start of Barvalipe, one participant shared, “I must confess that I had some stereotypes about Roma and sometimes I felt shy to declare myself Roma but now I feel stronger, here I learned to not be ashamed of it. The most important for me was that I met young Roma people who are educated, intelligent, and made me proud. I never felt proud of being Roma but now I changed my opinion. For the first time in my life I can say ‘I’m Roma,’ and I’m not ashamed for this. Barvalipe has a big influence on me.”

What does political participation mean?

The fulfillment of an open society requires that everyone has a voice. People are free to speak out, to assemble, and to associate. This involves everything from voting to having a say in how your community and country are run, to running for political office. The right to participate in public and political affairs is essential for any group seeking to assert themselves in an open society.

In what ways are Roma excluded from political and public life?

In many parts of Central and Eastern Europe, Roma constitute a sizeable part of the population. Despite this, Roma are largely absent from local and national political decision-making. Roma communities in many places officially do not exist due to their absence from official registers, including the census. This means that official numbers for the Roma population in some countries can be less than half the actual estimated population. The official invisibility of Roma people negatively affects public funding that could help Roma communities with healthcare, education, employment, and housing. This invisibility also undermines the potential for Roma political participation and Roma-led social change.

For many Roma who do vote, their vote risks being either suppressed or manipulated. Lack of information and poverty means Roma are often vulnerable to electoral malpractices such as vote-buying or outright fraud. Roma voter turnout can be suppressed through fear, violence, or tactics such as moving the polling station to somewhere far away from Roma settlements and without public transport. Internal rivalries and segregation within Roma communities also prevent Roma voting as a unified bloc.

Why focus on the Roma, when many groups are denied meaningful participation in public and political life?

Improving political participation concerns every group underrepresented in or excluded from political decisions that affect their lives. The Roma are Europe’s largest—around 12 million people—and most disadvantaged ethnic minority in Europe. The Roma face high rates of illiteracy, infant mortality, unemployment, substandard healthcare, and segregation in education. Roma are one of the most politically disenfranchised ethnic groups in Europe today. However, meaningful change for Roma must also be applied to other communities who find themselves excluded from public and political life.

Should we concentrate on improving housing, healthcare, and education, rather than voter participation?

For over 20 years, organizations and individuals—including the Open Society Foundations—have undertaken unprecedented efforts to alleviate the conditions that Roma endure in the areas of housing, health, education, human and civil rights, and employment. Roma-run nongovernmental organizations have managed some of these efforts at the local level, but most have been financed and guided by government institutions and other NGOs with little or no Roma representation. A focus on poverty is of course crucial and must continue but lasting change requires that Roma take a share in public decisions. No solutions to the critical problems Roma face in the areas of housing, health care, education, and employment will be lasting without the equal participation of Roma in political and public life.

What can be done to overcome Roma disenfranchisement?

Roma political and public disenfranchisement is caused by many factors, some of which occur within Roma communities. Achieving political and public participation for Roma begins with Roma self-organization.

Other steps include the following:

  • raising Roma participation in national censuses through Roma-led, grassroots campaigns; already, Roma-led census registration campaigns in one country have resulted in a 200 percent increase in Roma census registration
  • improving Roma representation in NGOs and other entities who campaign for Roma rights
  • holding local and national governments to account so that they fulfill quotas compelling public enterprises and public services to hire a certain amount of Roma, and not just in the most menial of jobs
  • developing alternative Roma representatives who Roma communities can trust
  • focusing on voter education and turnout so that Roma communities understand what happens on voting day and what their rights are
  • rooting out electoral malpractices such as vote-buying and vote-brokering
  • calling on Roma communities and societies as a whole to demand that electoral corruption, violence, and hate speech are unacceptable and punished
  • calling on donors from civil society to the European Union to emphasize participation in political and public life in their funding

This article originally appeared on the Open Society Foundations website. It is part of an ongoing series presented in collaboration with the Open Society Foundations. In this series, we shed light on some of the most pressing global challenges and the work that is being done to address them. For more stories like this, go here.