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Germany

Germany Mulls Extending Voting Rights to Foreigners

Foreigners living in Germany do not enjoy full civil rights. While foreigners from EU countries can take part in local elections, those from outside the EU cannot vote at all. Calls for a law change are growing.

A German ballot machine

Hands off: Only Germans and foreigners from EU states can vote in local elections

"Jasmine" [name changed -- eds. note] was born in Germany. Like her parents, who hail from Turkey, she holds a Turkish passport. She has successfully completed school exams to continue her studies at university and her educational performance was so good she got a scholarship to study medicine.

Despite this and the fact that she has spent her entire 23 years of life in Germany, she does not have her say in how her state or the country is run.

"Jasmine" is not an isolated case. While foreigners from European Union members may vote in the local elections, she cannot. She also can't vote for the government which runs the country in which she was born and raised. She is excluded from the German election process, like many others who have lived in Germany for decades but hold Turkish passports.

Those who have spoken up against the law tend to use similar arguments.

"I believe that the chance to express your opinion at a public, municipal level helps promote integration," said Lale Akgün, a migration and integration spokeswoman for the Social Democratic Party's parliamentary group. "I can't see where there is a problem with someone deciding where a one-way street begins or where a kindergarten is setup."

Akgün said other EU lands that have allowed foreigners to vote have experienced few problems at a municipal level and most EU citizens see that the right to vote among all those who live in a country is a step towards equality in society.

Moves to change law blocked by conservatives

a campaign poster of the Christian Social Union in Munich

Conservatives want to keep the law for local elections

In September 2007, the states of Berlin and the Rhineland-Palatinate introduced an initiative to the Bundesrat, Germany's upper house of parliament, to allow foreigners from non-EU countries to vote in local elections. The initiative has drawn vehement criticism from German conservatives.

The following month, the Greens party faction in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, announced their own bill to change the law, in line with the previous Social Democratic-Green government's coalition agreement, in which municipal voting rights were a central theme. So far, however, there has not been the necessary majority voting in favor of the bill to make it law.

At a local level, a number of districts are in favor of a law change. Eight of a total of 13 towns in North Rhine-Westphalia which took part in a survey conducted by local broadcaster WDR supported a change to allow non-EU foreigners vote at a municipal level. In Hesse, Frankfurt's conservative mayor Petra Roth herself expressed support for a change in February 2007.

International trend towards wider voting rights

On the international front, observers have noted a slow but definite trend developing.

"More and more countries are introducing local voting rights for foreigners," said Dietrich Thränhardt, a professor comparative governance and migration research at the University of Münster. "Possibly half of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states already have such voting rights at local level, although there conditions are different. Some places require a certain length of residence before having the right."

Young Turkish women in Berlin

Young Turkish women are among those with no vote

Hans-Peter Uhl, a member of the conservative's Bundestag faction for interior affairs, said he believes that the law should remain as it is.

"Germany belongs to the people of the state," he said. "Who doesn't want this to be the basic law of the land?"

He added, however, that EU citizens voting in local elections made sense but ruled out a widespread voting law encompassing all non-Germans.

Uhl said he believes such a law would be unconstitutional and that the only reason the Social Democrats, Greens and the Left Party support the initiative to expand their own potential electorate to non-EU citizens in Germany as the number of foreigners increases.

The law itself may have the final say. In an article published in a legal journal in 1994, Brun Otto Bryde, a judge on the Federal Constitutional court -- the highest in the land -- wrote that foreigners who live, work, eat and drink in a state should also have some say in how that state is run. They belong to the state, he wrote, and so the state should belong to them.

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