Germany’s electorate includes some 7.4 million citizens with international roots, while many more millions of residents from abroad aren’t allowed to vote. Both groups are often overlooked by political parties.
Over 60 million people are eligible to vote in Germany's general election on September 26. But one group is often overlooked by politicians and parties: voters with an immigrant background, many of whom have roots in Turkey, Syria, or the former Soviet Union. That group comprises some 7.4 million voters, a full 12% of the electorate.
Although that number is considerable, this group of voters is rarely addressed directly, says social scientist Sabrina Mayer.She is currently working on a study on people with a migration background in Duisburg, a multicultural city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state. She drives around the city a lot, she says, and is a little surprised "that in such a city, people with a migration background are so rarely addressed directly with topics on campaign posters."
This could be one reason for the low turnout among people with a migrant background. In the last federal election in 2017, this was around 20% below the average. This phenomenon can become a vicious cycle, says Mayer: "If a group does not feel addressed, then they vote less often, and so the incentive for the parties to take up the issues is reduced, which is why the turnout continues to fall."
Getting people to the polls is a problem that social activist Ali Can knows very well. The initiator of the Twitter hashtag #MeTwo, which is supposed to draw attention to discrimination, was born in Turkey, is of Kurdish origin, and fled to Germany with his family in 1995. Can is also fighting for a higher electoral turnout among people with immigrant roots.
One project he launched for the parliamentary elections is a multilingual electoral assistance app. "In the 21st century, getting help to vote should not have any barriers," he told DW. But alongside providing information about the voting procedure and the candidates, getting people to the polls calls for a multifaceted approach that appeals to people's emotions. "We have failed to give people with a migration background the feeling that they also belong in Germany," he said.
Little scientific data
Little is known about which migrant groups vote which party and why. Targeted studies would be necessary to gather a clearer picture, but they cost money and then often only include the largest migrant groups.
The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) is a German political foundation affiliated with Merkel's ruling Christian Democrats (CDU, which holds power with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The KAS foundation carried out two such studies, in 2015 and 2019, with a focus on the three largest migrant groups in Germany. These are people with Turkish (2.8 million), Russian (1.4 million), and Polish (2.2 million) migration backgrounds.
In two groups, the result remained relatively constant for a long time, according to one of the studies: "Persons arriving more recently from Russia voted above averagely often for the CDU and CSU; people of Turkish origin for the Social Democrats (SPD)." For a few years now, however, "fixed patterns" have been weakening, and instead, there is a "high degree of mobility across political party lines." The studies show that many of those who were of Russian origin and who were eligible to vote migrated from the center-right CDU/CSU to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD); those of Turkish origin no longer remained loyal to the center-left SPD, but instead more often voted for the CDU/CSU. When it came to Germany's large Polish community, the Green Party benefited from the shift in voter loyalty.
A good sign for democracy
This new mobility at the ballot box should be seen as a sign of "normalization," say the KAS foundation researchers. After all, mobility in elections has increased in general, including in the rest of the German population. Mayer also sees it this way: "Party loyalty is declining, decisions are made based on topics and what appeals to individuals is what counts, instead of people just voting as a bloc for a party that has always been associated with their own group."
But the parties do not seem to want to take advantage of this opportunity. "People with a migration background represent a considerable electoral potential for political parties," according to the organization "Citizens For Europe." However, that is on the condition "that they adapt what they're offering and their political platform to the increasingly diverse electorate." In many cases, according to the Mediendienst Integration, a press service focusing on migration and integration issues, many of the topics that matter most to immigrants are ignored by politicians.
Even if eligible voters with non-German roots are taken into account, there are nearly as many people living in Germany who are of voting age but totally shut out of the electoral process: those with a foreign background who are not allowed to vote here because they do not have German citizenship. That's 8.7 million people.
Having more representation of people with international backgrounds among the political class, for example, could counteract this. But for now they remain rare in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag: Only 58 of its 709 members have non-German roots.
This article was translated from German.
Author: Kay-Alexander Scholz
First published: September 15, 2021
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