Exercising Your Rights as a Non-Citizen

May 06, 2010
*Special to asia!

Are you a Bangladeshi in Bristol? You may get to vote in UK elections, due to a ruling that allows Commonwealth citizens to go to the polls.

By the time you read this, the UK general election may be over. The political landscape of Britain, for the next few years at least, will have altered. Amid all the brouhaha over TV debates and microphone gaffes and hung parliaments, one very curious fact has got relatively short shrift – an estimated one million non-British citizens, or about 2% of the electorate, are expected to cast their votes in the 2010 polls.1 Wait a minute – non-citizens? Why? What does it even mean?

Under British election regulations, anyone above the age of 18 who comes from one of the approved list of Commonwealth of Nations member-states (previously the British Commonwealth), and who is resident in the UK, can vote in the general elections – even if he or she is not a British citizen.2 Why such provisions exist is a historically-laden question, and though the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) claims that ‘this eligibility is based on long-standing ties between the UK and Commonwealth members’, the inescapable fact is that the 54-state Commonwealth is mostly made up of former colonies of the British Empire.3 Perhaps it’s best if the answers to the ‘why’ question are left to the academics and history books.

In practical terms, these election provisions are ironic in several ways.

Firstly, of course, is the fact that non-citizens get to vote in a national general election – unless of course, as the saying goes, the sun has not yet set on the British Empire, and I rather suspect one would be hard-pressed to find people to agree with that assessment of British power (the influence of the Barclays Premier League aside). Furthermore, these Commonwealth-citizen voters are apparently clustered in ‘key marginal seats’ in this particular election; this gives their votes a rather inordinate influence on the outcome.4 That’s not to say these voters are necessarily alien – the fact they must be resident implies that they do have a vested interest in good governance, hence their participation in local elections as well. Still, electing your local councillor is one thing, having a disproportionately large influence on the hotly-contested election of the next batch of national decision-makers in a time of global economic upheaval, is another.

Another irony is that Commonwealth-citizen voters may well get to exercise their democratic rights in a political context quite different from their home countries. Even on a superficial level, only considering South Asians (who make up the majority of Commonwealth-citizen voters) and just based on a analysis of the 2008 Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy, the UK (with a score of 8.15) was ranked as a ‘full democracy’, and decidedly above the so-called ‘hybrid regimes’ of Pakistan (4.46), Bangladesh (5.52), and the ‘flawed democracies’ of India (7.80) and Sri Lanka (6.61) – which are all on the ‘approved list’ of Commonwealth member-states.5 Obviously not everyone agrees with The Economist’s judgements, but it’s hard to deny that South Asia is a region of political flux, sometimes violently so.


A "Save the Tamils" protest outside the Houses of Parliament, London, which took place on April 11, 2009.

A "Save the Tamils" protest outside the Houses of Parliament, London, which took place on April 11, 2009.

Photo credit: Martyn Doherty


The final irony is this – the disproportionate weightage of Commonwealth-citizen votes may itself bring about its own demise. The election anomaly of Commonwealth voting rights, as the RCS acknowledges, are ‘almost certainly’ to be subject to electoral reform reviews by the new government. This is especially so, given how the issues of both electoral reform and immigration have been political hot potatoes in the 2010 campaigns of the major British political parties.6 Change is inevitable, and it remains to be seen where ‘the democratic journey’ (in the words of Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma) will leave the one million or so beneficiaries of a curious provision of British democracy.7


Asian countries whose citizens are eligible to vote in British elections if they are resident in the UK:


Brunei Darussalam





Sri Lanka

For the full list of countries, click here.



1  1 million Commonwealth nationals could swing UK election

2  Who can register to vote?

Lim Jin Li is (among other things) a post-graduate student in History at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Contact Jin Li