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Voting rights

June 6, 2009

62 million Germans are entitled to vote in the EU parliamentary elections and in Germany's parallel local elections on Sunday. But several million long-term residents will not get a chance to cast their ballots.

Pedestrian in Brussels studies billboard
More than 375 million people in 27 European Union member states are eligible to voteImage: AP

Germany's constitution and electoral law are quite specific: Those entitled to vote in Sunday's double-pack of elections must have German citizenship - either through descent or a passport granted under strict integration rules. They also need to be at least 18 years of age and be a resident in a German municipality for at least three months.

EU integration rules widen that circle to include an additional 2.1 million citizens of other EU countries who reside in Germany. They will be able to vote in the European Parliament election and simultaneously in Germany's municipal elections being held in half of regional states. The largest numbers of those eligible originate from Italy, Poland, Greece, Austria and the Netherlands.

A woman casts her first ballot as a German citizen
A woman casts her first ballot as a German citizenImage: AP

Not included in Sunday's polls in Germany are 3.6 million non-EU foreign residents of voting age. These non-voters belong to a disparate group originating from the northern hemisphere's non-EU countries, such as Turkey and Russia, as well as nations across Africa, the Americas, Asia and Ozeania.

Strict rules remain controversial

Since women got the vote in Weimar Germany in 1919, parliamentary debate has raged for decades over who else should participate in Germany's electoral processes by exercising the so-called active right as a voter and the "passive" right by becoming a candidate.

Latest Federal Statistics Bureau figures from Wiesbaden show that even if German lawmakers stipulated a three-year waiting period of residency before voting, 3.3 million non-EU citizens would be eligible to cast ballots this election year. But doing so would require Germany to re-write its constitution.

Bundestag debate shows deep divisions over voting rights

Last week in Germany's lower house of parliament, the Greens and Left Party unsuccessfully sought to amend Germany's constitution so as to give resident non-EU foreign residents at least a communal vote ahead of this Sunday's city and county elections.

The two opposition parties lost by 88 votes to 437. Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led the charge in defeating the measure. CDU parliamentary spokesman Ingo Wellenreuther said foreigners should learn the German language and customs and then to apply for citizenship before voting.

CDU parliamentarian Ingo Wellenreuther
Wellenreuther says foreigners need to become citizens if they want to voteImage: picture-alliance / dpa

"So often you draw the wrong conclusions," he said. "The correct approach is that the right to vote must not be at the beginning but follow integration."

Wellenreuter added that extra voting rights for EU citizens living in Germany was an exception stipulated only by EU rules on integration and reflected also in Paragraph 28 of Germany's constitution. The exclusion of the non-EU resident foreigners did not amount to inequality, he said.

An important part of democracy

Left Party parliamentarian Sevim Dagdelen said she wants to see resident non-EU foreigners get a communal right to vote like their counterparts in 16 other nations of the European Union.

Many foreigners living in Germany are long-time residents, with an average stay of 17 years, she said. It is a "missing opportunity to participate in a core area of democracy, in elections, which amounts to a major democratic deficit," Dagdelen said.

Center-left Social Democrats in Chancellor Merkel's grand coalition expressed sympathy for extending eligibility, but voted to uphold the coalition and reject the amendment.

Requirements vary between countries

Paul Guerin, a senior researcher with the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, says IDEA in its world-wide surveys of voting rights identify citizenship as the usual prerequisite in 96 percent of the countries questioned. Residency is a criteria in a third of the countries, and the period can be anything from one to five years. Naturalization is also a possibility.

"These are examples where you may have to prove that your parents were citizens of that country," Guerin told Deutsche Welle.

Since the 1970s numerous European and Commonwealth countries, including Britain and Australia, have extended voting to so-called "third country" foreign residents on their territories.

"The UK could be cited as an example, because of the Commonwealth Agreement. So a number of other citizens from Commonwealth countries who come to reside in the UK, who come to work in the UK, would be entitled to vote," Guerin said.

Author: Ian Johnson
Editor: Trinity Hartman