Non-German Berliners disenfranchised in city′s election | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 09.09.2016
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Non-German Berliners disenfranchised in city's election

One in five Berliners cannot vote in the city's upcoming mayoral election because they are not German citizens. A campaign to widen the franchise is facing more xenophobic sentiment than ever.

The campaign posters in the German capital have been ubiquitous for several weeks - but, for nearly one in five Berliners, they serve mainly as a reminder that they are not invited to participate in the city's political process on September 18.

Like many major European cities, Berlin is home to dozens of different nationalities (about 180 in fact), but, unlike many other places, foreigners have no say in mayoral elections.

Under the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, EU citizens are allowed to vote in municipal elections when they live in other member states. However, Berlin does not count as merely a municipality, but doubles as one of Germany's 16 states. That means that Berlin's government is also represented in the upper house of Germany's parliament, the Bundesrat, and so Berlin's elections are governed by the national electoral law, which limits participation to citizens.

Foreigners living in Germany's other two city states, Hamburg and Bremen, have the same problem, while EU citizens living in Cologne or Munich or Stuttgart are allowed to take part in mayoral elections - as are EU citizens in capitals such as Paris and London. (The latter even allows Commonwealth citizens to vote.)

Frauke Petry, Björn Höcke

The rise of the AfD has colored the political debate in Germany

'Comments and anger'

Because 551,000 Berliners do not have German citizenship, the NGO Citizens for Europe has relaunched a campaign to widen the franchise in the nation's capital.

The long-running effort has previously enjoyed considerable success. In a 2014 Forsa survey, some 69 percent of German Berliners said they were in favor of at least allowing foreigners to vote in city referendums.

Beyond that, all of Berlin's major political parties - apart from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) - supported the idea of expanding voting rights to non-German residents before Berlin's last election in 2011, including the winners, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). But the SPD then voted against a subsequent bill in the state parliament, a sacrifice the party made in its coalition agreement with the CDU.

Five years on, Citizens for Europe's campaign will probably face more of a struggle, with Germany's right-wing resurgence and the likely entry of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party into the state parliament next week. (The AfD is currently polling at 15 percent in Berlin.) This has colored the political debate to the extent that abolishing dual citizenship has become a more pressing issue for many CDU politicians than expanding voting rights.

Citizens for Europe director Martin Wilhelm acknowledges as much. "When we put posts on Facebook about giving voting rights to nonnationals, we get a lot more comments and anger than a few years ago," he told DW. "They not only say, 'I don't think it's the right thing,' but actually say, 'I think they all should leave'. Before, there was a proper debate."

Constitutional issue?

German courts have previously cited the Basic Law as a justification for denying foreigners the vote. Both the Constitutional Court in 1990 and a Bremen court in 2014 ruled against giving non-Germans the vote because of Article 20.2, which reads: "All state authority is derived from the people."

Both courts determined that this meant German nationals - but, according to Citizens for Europe, this is a matter of interpretation. "This article explicitly does not mention 'German' people, because this is a democratic principle and not a nation-state principle," the organization argues on its website.

"Among judges and lawyers, there seems to be a belief that the German constitutional law wouldn't need to be changed," Wilhelm said. "It's not about changing the constitutional law: It's about asking the Constitutional Court to redefine their interpretation of who 'the people' are."

Wilhelm also argues that the legal context has completely changed in the 26 years since Germany's top court last considered the question, not least the advent of the Maastricht Treaty as well as a number of OECD and UN conventions related to people's rights.

"Plus all the judges have completely changed," Wilhelm said. "We believe that the Constitutional Court would decide this time that 'people' does not mean Germans, but those who live in the country."

In fact, many other countries do tie voting rights to residency rather than citizenship - and not just at the local level. According to the Migrant Integration Policy Index, New Zealand's electoral laws effectively offer EU citizens more participation in the political process than Germany's do.

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