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Should expats get the vote?

Whether or not they're excited about Merkel's inevitable reelection, most Germans will be headed to the polls on Sep 22. But nobody's more removed from the elections than expats, Exberliner staffers included, and with good reason: we can't vote.

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Photo by Maia Schoenfelder

Berliners will be voting in Germany’s federal elections on September 22. But roughly 440,000 – more than 10 percent of the city’s population – can’t go to the polls.

Not only Exberliner staffers are unhappy about this situation: campaigns are calling to extend voting rights to all Berliners regardless of their nationality.

The German elections are less than a month away, and Exberliner’s office in Mitte is… well, “buzzing” is not quite the right word. “Bored” might be closer. In fact, it would be easy to forget the voting entirely if we didn’t have our September politics special to worry about.

One reason is that the election itself is a sleeper. Who’s going to get excited about the 100 to 1 odds that Merkel will be re-elected chancellor? But another reason is that a big chunk of our team can’t participate. Many of us – from the editor to the author of this article – are among the roughly 440,000 Berliners who lack voting rights because they have no German passport.

EU citizens living in Berlin can participate in the elections for the district parliaments (Bezirksverordnetenversammlungen or BVV) and the EU parliament as well as referendums at a district level. But they can’t vote for the mayor, the senate or the parliament of Berlin – and certainly not for the Bundestag. Meanwhile, Berliners with a passport from outside the EU can’t vote on anything.

In the office

Erica, our art director, votes in national elections in her native Finland and in local elections in Berlin. She doesn’t want to vote for Germany’s Bundestag: “I don’t know how to vote tactically to get a particular coalition,” she says. “I would need a one-week course to understand that.” On the other hand, she doesn’t understand why her communal voting rights apply to her district but not to the city as a whole: “I’m as much a citizen of Berlin as of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.” She’d also like to participate in the upcoming referendum on the re-communalisation of the energy grid.

Walter, our web editor, cast his vote for the last US presidential election from Berlin – it was counted in San Francisco, his last place of residence in the States. “It was clear that Obama would win, the same way that Merkel will win now”, he remembers, but he voted for Obama anyway. “I needed to participate in democracy since it’s the only thing I can do for the US.” The 30-year-old columnist for the gay magazine Siegessäule likes protests as well, but living right at Kottbusser Tor, the almost daily demonstrations tend to blend together. He cares about local issues like rents, drug policy and public transport – “and we should just abandon that new airport” – but he’s not too interested in Germany’s political parties: “I’m not investing much time in that if I can’t vote.”

Laura (name changed), a staffer, might be the last person you’d expect to vote here. She moved to Berlin less than two years ago from the US. Her German is halting, but her passport nonetheless proclaims Deutsch. Her grandfather fled from Hamburg in 1938 and, after spending the war in Shanghai, eventually settled in California. In 2008, he and all his living descendants acquired German citizenship. Now Laura is one of the small number of Berliners who hold two passports. This is her first German election, and she is leaning towards Die Linke or the Greens, although during our conversation she confuses the social-democratic SPD with the hyperliberal FDP. She’s talking to her local friends to get a feeling for her options. “People here really think about who they are going to vote for”, she reflects, “whereas in the US it’s automatically clear which of the two parties you’ll support.”

On the bike

“As a Berlin Turk from the Black Sea coast, I don’t want it to be like this” says Aydin Akin. The 70-year-old has lived in the city for 45 years, working as a tax consultant for Berlin workers, primarily from Turkey and Arab countries. But you probably know him for something else: Every day, Aydin rides his bike through eight of Berlin’s districts with a whistle and protest signs demanding the right to vote. He also calls for tax equality, since non-EU citizens pay higher taxes even though they get fewer services. The messages on his signs might be too small to read, but they’re always on the same topic.

Aydin has been doing this every single day since September 2005 (two federal elections ago), “including on Sundays and holidays”. How far has he been so far? “At the end of June, the stand was 100,200 kilometres,” he says. In the same time, he’s written exactly 32,131 letters and e-mails to countless politicians and political groups. “If the demands aren’t met, I’ll keep biking and protesting to the cemetery,” he swears. These protest forms might seem quixotic, but Aydin has also helped organize larger bicycle demonstrations as well as symbolic votes for foreigners.

In their own Heimat

Kathleen O’Brien was born and raised in Germany; her parents were Irish and English citizens who got their child an Irish passport because the Irish consulate had the simplest procedure. She could try to get a double passport now, 26 years later, but that would mean lots of forms and even more fees. “Not particularly enticing.” So she can’t vote in Germany, except at the communal level, but she can’t vote in Ireland either, where residency is required as well as citizenship. “In view of Ireland’s high number of emigrants, this makes sense to me,” she says, and she doesn’t follow the national politics of a country where she’s never lived. “My parents have been living in Germany for 30 years and they’ve never been able to elect a representative at a national level,” she says. The worker in cultural management would like a right to vote herself: “No taxation without representation!”

“If I give up my passport, I lose the last piece of my roots,” explains Monika Hubar. She moved to Germany from Poland at the age of four, just before the Iron Curtain fell, and the 30-year-old has been living in Germany ever since. She has kept her Polish passport: “If I could get a German one as well, I would do that.” But the introduction of double passports was blocked more than a decade ago by conservative politicians. Now the young woman has one passport but two countries: “In Germany I’m called a Pole, but in Poland I am dismissed as a German,” she explains. “I have an accent in both languages.” She went to the Polish embassy in Berlin to vote once – “to get rid of the Kaczyński twins” – and she also voted in a district-level referendum in 2009 in Tempelhof-Schöneberg about keeping the Tempelhof Airport open, but that was after the city-wide referendum on the same topic had already been defeated, so the whole thing was later declared invalid. “I would vote if I could, but since I can’t, the elections don’t really interest me,” she concludes.

In the parliaments

The conservative party CDU is in favour of the current system: if you want to be a German citizen, you must give up all loyalties to other countries. If you can’t or don’t want to do that for whatever reason, then: no double passports, no voting rights, and higher taxes. But most parties in the parliament are in favour of reform. The SPD and Die Linke call for expanded voting rights for foreigners. The Greens have put up election posters in Neukölln featuring a woman with two passports and the slogan “Double is Better.” The Pirates want “voting rights for all Berliners, regardless of nationality”. But so far, reform has got caught up in the cogs of the political machine: the coalition contract of Berlin’s “red-black” government excludes any expanded voting rights, so the SPD is currently voting against its own position and in line with the CDU.

In the meantime, Berliners without German citizenship are getting active. A campaign called “Wahlrecht für alle” (“voting rights for all”) organised a “symbolic election” in the run-up to the local elections in September of 2011. For years there have been “symbolic elections” for people under 18, and now Berliners without a German passport had the chance to show their preferences – and also their desire to participate in democracy. On September 4, two weeks before the real election, 2371 non-voters went to 82 polling stations. The results were about what you’d expect: Non-citizens were more likely to vote for the SPD and the Greens, while only 8 percent cast a vote for the CDU. They were less likely than average to vote for Die Linke, the Pirates or – naturally – the neo-Nazi party NPD. And non-citizens, just like citizens, didn’t vote for the FDP at all.

The “Wahlrecht für alle” campaign is now organising a protest action in the government quarter on September 14. A long line of people are going to wait in front of a giant ballot box to protest against democratic deficits in the current system.  European elections are coming up again in May of next year: Germany has 96 representatives in the European parliament, but this number is calculated according to the number of residents, not of citizens. Almost 4.5 million people are represented by people they can’t vote for.

“Germany should belong to the population and not to ‘the Germans!'” says Janika Oberg from the association Jede Stimme (“every vote”) that is supporting the campaign. “Lots of Berliners have lived here for decades, work here, are active and pay taxes,” she explains. Many of them can’t get a passport for administrative reasons but have a right to be involved in decisions that affect their lives. This isn’t a utopian demand either: 16 countries in Europe and as many as 45 worldwide offer some voting rights to foreign citizens.

Until there is a solution, which will have to be at a federal level in Germany, there are lots of possibilities for political activity – German passport or not! Non-citizens can become a member of a party and campaign for elections. We can protest and demonstrate just as well as passport holders. We can’t sign petitions for referendums, but we can still collect signatures from citizens. So Germany’s federal elections are a good time to get active about the topics relevant to you – whether it’s rents, education, the environment or Germany’s role in the euro crisis – if for no other reason than to annoy the CDU.