So what does it take to get Americans, Arabs and Turks working together? A mock election for Berlin’s disenfranchised foreigners ahead of the real one on September 18.
If he or she doesn’t have a job, a non-EU citizen in Germany could well end up being sent by the Job Center to do integration classes – 650 hours of them. Six hundred of those are taken up with German lessons, while the other 50 are meant for ‘orientation.’
That involves schooling in Germany’s constitution, culture and political system and then – once the Ausländer are thoroughly orientated – being tested.
Given that foreigners aren’t allowed to participate in the political system, this is a bit ironic. If you factor in Germany’s complicated attitude to dual citizenship, it becomes very hard for foreigners to get any kind of say in government at either a local, state, federal or European level.
Of course, registered residents from the rest of the European Union do get a ballot in the European parliamentary elections (if they apply for one), and Berlin allows these same EU citizens to vote in district-level elections (no application necessary).
But when it comes to the big polls – the federal and state elections, which determine who gets to be chancellor, state premier or Berlin mayor, and which parties get what seats in the parliaments – everyone without a German passport is disenfranchised.
In Berlin, that’s 460,000 people – 13 percent of the population. Some of these people have been simmering in their political impotence for a while.
“This is an issue I think about every time a politician in the street gives me a pamphlet,” says Pam Selwyn, co-founder and vice-chair of American Voices Abroad (AVA). “I usually say to them, ‘I’d love to be able to vote, but I can’t. And yes, I’ll take your flyer, but I’d like you to do something about the fact that I’ve been in Berlin for almost 30 years and can’t vote in a local election.’”
One German listens
So far, precious few politicians have listened to Pam, which is why the AVA meeting at the beginning of the summer was particularly well attended.
Disgruntled Americans, most of them well into their second or third decade in Germany, gathered in a Kreuzberg deli to hear a new proposal from Christian Mieß, a freshfaced, lanky German political scientist with an eager expression: ‘Jede Stimme 2011’ (Every Vote 2011).
It doesn’t take Mieß long to explain the basic idea: a symbolic election for non-German Berliners, held over seven days (polling began on August 29 and ends on September 4), two weeks before the state election.
With proof that they live in Berlin, foreigners will be able to cast their votes in unofficial ballot booths scattered around the city. There won’t be any candidates’ names on the ballot papers – just the names of the parties. The votes will be counted and the results published.
“The right to vote is essential for every healthy society,” Mieß says brightly. “If you get people involved, you get a sense of ownership. What is lacking in this country is that we don’t conceive of our neighbours as equal partners.”
Michael LaFond, an American expat and director of Berlin’s Institute for Creative Sustainability, points out that all this is partly because a lot of expats have been here a long time now. “If you feel like you’re going to stay a while, it increases your motivation to vote,” he says. In the long run, the traditional political apathy of the immigrant diminishes.
LaFond also thinks this new urge for democratization in Germany – sparked earlier in the year by the Stuttgart 21 row in Baden-Württemberg – is partly the result of growing concern about what happens to our urban environment.
“There are lots of these local issues in Berlin, relating to street development and park development,” says the soft-spoken urban planner. “Things like Mauerpark, Mediaspree and what’s happening in Oderberger Straße – there are more and more of them, and they are testing the limits of democracy.”
Every vote counts
The idea of foreigners voting where they live is not new. It’s just new to Germany.
“When it comes to voting rights, Germany is a long way behind,” says Mieß. “Other countries adopted voting rights for foreigners back in the 1970s. Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands all have more liberal rights.”
Jede Stimme 2011 is being coordinated by Citizens for Europe, a Europe-wide network of initiatives set up in 2010. That’s who Mieß represents, and he, along with his small team of voluntary co-organizers, spent the first half of the year hopping from one community organization to the next trying drumming up commitments to help.
That culminated in a slightly chaotic coordination meeting in Mitte at the end of June, where Mieß and his friends unveiled a swanky PowerPoint presentation to explain the idea.
Then the Americans, Turks, Poles, Kurds and Arabs got together and spent hours hashing out the nuts and bolts.
Nalan Arkat, head of the German Turkish community organization (TGD) – an umbrella group that includes 29 local German-Turkish clubs – was not deterred by the occasionally hectic atmosphere at the summer meeting.
“It’s a brand new idea,” she said. “We did a voting rights petition once, and collected 25,000 signatures, but I think this election idea is stronger symbolically and will be effective.”
Arkat also thinks the project will help to break the political apathy that can calcify in foreign communities.
“It’s good because it gets foreigners talking about the election and the results. They should start thinking about those issues,” she said.
It took a while for all the various nuances to be worked through at the meeting. (How do we make sure people don’t vote twice? What about asylum seekers and illegal immigrants?)
But at the time of writing, those organizations have agreed to set up 30 polling booths (which has now grown to a confirmed 75) – several contributed by the TGD – and the flyers have been translated into eleven languages. Now all that’s left is to get the word out.
But getting the vote in Berlin is just the beginning. Citizens for Europe may still be in an embryonic form, but it has big plans. As Mieß says, “We have national elections in Germany in 2013. Who knows where we will be by then?”
Or as Arkat concludes: “We live in this society and help to form it. Why shouldn’t we get a say in running it?”