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Symbolic ballot

September 5, 2011

The organization Citizens for Europe last week staged a ballot for Berlin's foreign residents ahead of the German capital's mayoral election. The SPD and Greens were the big winners of the "symbolic election."

Polling station
There were 75 polling booths around BerlinImage: dpa

Earlier this summer, a meeting of American Voices Abroad (AVA) was graced by a special guest. He came to address the Berlin-based organization for US expats on a theme they knew from home, and which spoke to many of their hearts - no taxation without representation. He also came to mobilize these non-native Berliners, many of whom have lived and worked in the city for decades, to do something about it.

This was Christian Miess, a bright and eager young German political science graduate from the democracy organization Citizens for Europe, and he was here to pitch the campaign Jede Stimme 2011, or "Every Vote 2011."

It was essentially a symbolic election for Berlin's foreign residents, to be held two weeks before Berlin's official mayoral election on September 18.

Karen Axelrad, a long-term AVA member, distils the crucial point for many foreigners living in Germany. "I've lived in Berlin for 38 years, I've paid taxes for 38 years, and I'm not allowed to vote," she told Deutsche Welle. "So I just feel if I have to be taxed, I ought to be able to have a say in who's taxing me."

Integration class in Berlin
Integration has been a persistent hot-button political topic for some timeImage: picture alliance/ZB

Results announced

The 75 polling stations were open for a whole week and closed Sunday evening when Citizens for Europe held a special event to announce the results.

Around 3,000 votes were registered, and with most of them counted, the center-left Social Democratic Party led the way with 38 percent of the vote, the Greens amassed 26 percent, the socialist Left party got a solid 12 percent, while Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats brought in only 8 percent. At the bottom end of the tally, the Pirate Party (at 3.4 percent) overtook the floundering pro-business Free Democratic Party (at 2.4 percent) to place fifth.

The symbolic election didn't count for anything of course, but that was the point. It was meant to draw attention to the German capital's 460,000 residents - 13 percent of the population - who don't have a vote because they don't have a German passport.

But as Miess explains, the Every Vote campaign was about more than just claiming the most basic political right - it was meant to cement a diverse society, or, to use today's double-edged buzzword: It was meant to aid "integration."

"The right to vote is essential for every healthy democracy, for every healthy society," he said. "If you get people involved you get a sense of ownership. If you decide with your neighbors, if you decide with the people in your street, then you involve people more. What is missing in this country is that we don't conceive of our neighbors as equal partners."

Mobile Europe

Most European cities have become a constantly-shifting hodge-podge of cultures and ethnicities, one of the consequences of which is that millions of people live in a place where they can't vote. That leaves a large section of the population disenfranchised. Apart from anything else, this is potentially untapped ground for political parties.

The symbolic election was an undertaking that required a good deal of coordination. Since Citizens for Europe is just a small band of unpaid volunteers like Miess, various minority organizations like AVA were enlisted to help set up polling booths all over the city.

The idea was that various immigrant community organizations - representing Berlin's Turks, Poles, Kurds, Russians, Arabs and various African groups - would set up and publicize their own polling booths, where anyone without a German passport could register their political preference. (The ballot papers included no candidates' names, only the official political parties.)

Organizing Babel

Many of these organizations don't normally have much to do with one another, which is why the coordinating meetings were a little chaotic. Nalan Arkat directs the Turkish community organization, an umbrella group for a number of different clubs in the Turkish community - by far Berlin's biggest immigrant group.

Renate Künast
Green party mayoral candidate Renate Künast supported the campaignImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Arkat was impressed with the novelty of the project. "For us it's a totally new idea," she said. "We used to take part in petition campaigns and expressed this wish at every opportunity, but these elections have a very important symbolic character, and it means the public will be approached from a completely new side."

But of course the symbolic election is just the first step in a long campaign towards a new attitude to who should have the right to vote. For a start, it's important to distinguish between which vote you are trying to win the right to - federal, state or local district. Arkat and the Citizens for Europe are ultimately aiming for greater immigrant representation at the higher levels but are aware that only the local district election is really realistic at the moment.

The issue behind the issue

Every Vote 2011 did boast some political support from outside the immigrant community. Former federal consumer affairs minister Renate Künast, the Green party's candidate for mayor in Berlin, came out as a prominent supporter, though she also hedged her bets over the legal niceties.

"I think it's a good campaign, firstly because I'm interested in the result, but also because it underlines an important problem," Künast said. "I do think it's something that needs to be addressed. But we already have a big problem with the right to vote at a local district level. If we - in government - start an initiative, there will have to be a court process, but I hope that the constitutional court says, 'It is right.'"

The issue that lurks behind all this, of course, is that of dual citizenship. If long-term immigrants were given greater access to German citizenship, without being forced to give up their own, then the question of having the right to vote would - for the many people who have lived in Germany for decades - resolve itself. But for the moment, the Every Vote 2011 campaign is trying to make Berlin's politicians aware that there are plenty of people out there who would like to have a say but simply aren't allowed.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Nancy Isenson