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7.8 million Germany residents left without a vote

Ian P. Johnson
September 7, 2017

Nearly 8 million foreigners in Germany, many who have been residents for decades, won't have a vote to choose who leads the country they call home. Voting laws put tight limits on who can cast a federal election ballot.

Protesting resident foreign non-voters in Berlin with T-shirts displaying the word Wahlrechtlos outside a ballot statio
Wahlrechtlos - or vote-less - stand outside a Berlin ballot station in 2009 as Chancellor Merkel exercised her right to voteImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S.Stache

Some 7.8 million adult foreign residents in Germany will see themselves sidelined when federal election polls open on September 24, according to 2016 microcensus data sifted for DW by Germany's Federal Statistics Office (Destatis).

On average, these resident foreigners have lived in Germany for 15 years while paying tax and obligatory levies into health and pension funds, often acquiring intimate knowledge of German politics and culture.

Read more: Immigrant voters in German federal election could prove influential

But they cannot vote, nor stand as political party candidates - unlike 61.5 million Germans, including 3 million first-timers, who can vote in the federal election.

The exclusion is spelled out in Germany’s post-war Federal Elections Act: A voter for Germany’s Bundestag must be solely German and 18 years or older – precepts also anchored rigidly in Germany’s post-war Constitution or Basic Law.

Long-stay foreigners can apply to become German citizens but normally have to surrender their original statehood. Proportionally few do so, at a sluggish rate of 110,000 per year. Some Germans are allowed dual nationality but only as an exemption.

Destatis delineates three groups among the 7.8 million non-enfranchised foreigners: citizens from EU nations living in Germany, residents from “other European" nations outside the bloc such as Russia, Turkey and Kosovo; and a third cluster, non-EU-foreigners - from Asia, Africa, the Americas, Oceania/Australia.

Infografik Ausländer die in Deutschland nicht wählen dürfen ENG

If Germany were to enact laws requiring at least four years of residency before receiving the right to vote, election rolls would expand by 5.8 million people, according to Destatis figures.

Alone, last September's Berlin city-state assembly election excluded 555,000 or nearly one-in-five residents, according to Citizens for Europe.

'No reasons to exclude people'

Beyond these millions of long-stay residents are some 85,000 Germans disqualified under the Election Act’s paragraph 13, mostly because they are deemed mentally unfit and assigned custodial supervisors or psychiatric patients in detention.

Demands have mounted that such persons, often with Down syndrome, get the right to vote, led by former Health Minister Ulla Schmidt, who now chairs the nationwide charity Lebenshilfe.

"There are no reasons to exclude people from the right to vote because enfranchisement is a basic pillar of our democracy," Schmidt told Deutschlandfunk public radio last month.

Bundestag unmoved

Germany’s parliament has balked for decades over calls to expand voting rights, despite appeals for liberalization from the opposition Greens and Left party directed at conservatives within Chancellor Angela Merkel's "grand coalition" government with the Social Democratic Party.

A dual nationality initiative that would have benefited long-time foreign residents was floated by the center-left Social Democrats and Greens when they governed in the late 90s but was diluted as SPD former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder fought off a conservative revolt.

Infografik ausländische Bevölkerung in Deutschland ENG

Christian Democrat (CDU) Roland Koch railed in early 1999 against dual nationality and emerged as Hesse premier after ousting the region's SPD and Greens from the state's assembly.

Father Briton, mother German

Fast-forward to December 2016: During a Bundestag debate over a CDU bid to force potential German dual nationals to choose citizenship in a single country, Katarina Barley, then SPD general secretary and now federal SPD family minister, accused Merkel’s CDU of ruining integration efforts.

"My father is Briton, my mother is German,” said Barley while challenging suggestions that dual nationals would be less loyal to Germany. “What is that supposed to mean, that I could not be loyal?

Family Minister Katarina Barley addressing the Bundestag
Millions of resident foreigners were 'snubbed' by citizenship laws, Barley saidImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

"When you say, I could not be loyal toward two nations, then it can mean only one thing: You set one nation against the other," she told lawmakers. "In doing so, you snub millions of people."

Barley added that dual nationals "build bridges" between countries and cultures.

German 'exclusivity'

A CDU parliamentary state secretary attached to the Interior Ministry, Günter Krings, replied that the modern German state was based on the principles of national territory, the national exercise of power, and a Staatsvolk [a German term for constitutive people]. 

“For good reasons, based on all these elements, we assume in principle an exclusivity," asserted Krings, adding that statehood was more than just a "useful piece of paper," but embodied a "special loyalty" between nation and citizen.

Gesetzesentwurf gegen Präimplantationsdiagnostik
Germany assumes 'exclusivity,' says KringsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Multiple voting rights — at lower levels

Outside Germany, German citizens, numbering more than 3 million alone in the 35 OECD countries, can enjoy multiple voting rights — and not just within the EU.

From 1994, the Maastricht Treaty opened voter participation to EU citizens living in other bloc nations, notably for the European Parliament as well as communal polls, but not in national assemblies.

"Indeed, more than half of the EU member states have granted voting rights in local and regional elections," Katya Andrusz, spokesperson for the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) based in Vienna told DW.

"While each EU member state has its own voting rules, it needs to be understood that integration is always a two-way street," Andrusz said, adding that there was "no alternative to inclusion" of foreigners in the bloc, including its 21 million non-EU residents.

Participation contributes to sense of belonging

"Participation in democratic elections is critical for people to build and maintain a sense of belonging to the country in which they live, whether they were born there or have been resident there for much of their lives," she added.

The database of the Geneva-based worldwide operating Inter Parliamentary Union, PARLINE, displays countries where foreign residents can vote alongside native citizens.

Britain allows Irish and Commonwealth citizens to elect its Commons. Ireland allows British citizens with ordinary residency to jointly pick its Dail Eireann.  Foreigners need three years residence in Barbados to vote.

New Zealand, voting after one year's residency

Neuseelnad | TV-Debatte Jacinda Ardern und Bill English
New Zealand: Jacinda Ardern (Labour) v. PM Bill English Image: Getty images for TVNZ/M. Bradley

Germans who have emigrated to New Zealand can elect its parliament - on September 23 - after only one year’s proven residency.

Chile’s allows foreigners with five years' residence to help elect its congress. Malawi too allows "ordinary" residents to vote. 

Namibia requires four years' of residency before registering a foreign voter. Iceland also allows foreigners to vote under certain conditions.

Suffrage breakthrough

The presumed universal right to political participation has a long and incomplete evolution - in Germany too.

In late 1918, the new post-war Weimar Republic extended the franchise to 17 million women in one fell swoop - as voters and potential representatives.

100 Jahre internationaler Frauentag Flash-Galerie 2011
Suffrage: January 1919, 17 million German woman became eligible to voteImage: ullstein bild

Three hundred women were candidates on January 19, 1919; 37 entered parliament. Votes were cast by more than 80 percent of all eligible women. At the last federal election in 2013, women won 230 of 631 seats in the Bundestag, marking the highest percentage of women in Germany's lower house of parliament.

Nearly a century after the last major expansion to German voting laws, 7.8 million resident adults — many of whom call Germany home despite not holding the country's passport — are still waiting to cast their ballots.

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