I Couldn’t Vote in Germany’s Election, and That’s Wrong
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Almost 47 million people voted in the German parliamentary election last weekend. It was the closest vote since 2002; the center-left Social Democrats beat the conservative Christian Democratic bloc for first place by about 1.8 million votes. Party leaders will need every ounce of their negotiating skill to form the next government. Imagine how the outcome could have been swayed if 6 million more votes — about as many as the third-place Greens got altogether — had been cast.
That’s not a random number. Germany has a resident alien population of about 11.4 million (up 1.8% in 2020 alone); some three-quarters of that number are of voting age. If they turned out at the same rate as German citizens, about 6 million extra votes would have been cast. Just within my family — resident in Germany for seven years — three members would have liked to weigh in on Germany’s course post-Angela Merkel. But people like us are disenfranchised in a classic case of taxation without representation; what American revolutionaries called tyranny 250 years ago is an accepted state of affairs in most democracies today.
Modern democratic governance has a foundational economic component: The people agree to be taxed in return for a say in how a country is run. Western nations’ fast-growing immigrant populations have to submit to host countries’ tax laws from the moment they earn their first penny there. But almost everywhere, they have to wait for many years (for non-European Union citizens, eight in Germany and 10 in, say, Austria or the Czech Republic) to apply for citizenship. Even then it involves jumping lots of bureaucratic hoops; only then do they get voting rights.
Even on the local level, where many EU countries make it easier for foreign nationals to vote, they are often illogically disenfranchised. A German can vote in Berlin city-state elections 30 days after moving to the capital; I can’t, though I’m much more rooted in the city. It’s the same in Vienna: Because the city is a state in its own right, its elections rank higher than municipal ones, and fully a third of the city’s population — its resident foreign nationals — are excluded.
The West’s resident foreigner communities are diverse. They include both indigent refugees and highly compensated expats, construction workers and software engineers, taxi drivers and bestselling authors. The political agendas they could advocate if they had a voice, and a vote, would include a correspondingly broad range of issues, from improved second-language instruction in public schools to easier recognition of foreign qualifications, from smarter programs to draw immigrant women into the labor market to the opening of more public sector jobs to non-citizens. And besides these immigrant-specific agendas, which locals don’t even fully understand, the resident non-nationals also — believe it or not — have strong feelings about the same issues that fire up debate among citizens.
On a certain level, the disenfranchisement of these communities makes as little sense as the absence of women’s suffrage early last century; there’s no good reason citizens’ exclusive right to vote should be sacred. Indeed, rules on non-national voting differ significantly by country. In New Zealand — often hailed as a poster child for democracy — all permanent resident non-nationals are eligible to vote in national elections after just one year in the country; in Chile, after five years, and in Uruguay, after eight years. In the U.K., non-citizens from Ireland and Commonwealth nations can vote in national elections; the citizens of EU member states can vote in parliamentary elections for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Portugal grants some Brazilians resident there the right to vote on the basis of a special agreement with Brazil.
Because these exceptions exist and the countries that have legislated them are no worse for it, reasonable arguments to justify the disenfranchisement of resident foreigners almost everywhere else are hard to find. Naturalization rates do not drop when permanent residents are allowed to vote, the influence of foreign governments doesn’t increase so that anyone would notice, and locals actually benefit from more generous social policies in municipalities that grant suffrage to foreigners, as a 2012 Swedish study revealed. More recent research in Switzerland, where non-citizens make up a quarter of the population, shows that locals who have been exposed to foreigners voting — some Swiss cantons allow it while others don’t — evaluate their own political influence as being higher than those without such exposure.
As long as citizens retain their hold on the right to be elected — indeed, it would be strange to see a foreign national lead most nations — indigenous voters shouldn’t fear that their neighbors with foreign passports will get all the advantages of citizenship without its risks, such as the need to fight in the country’s wars or end up as collateral damage in lesser international disputes. Germany won’t cease to be the land of the Germans if people like me move on from hotly debating its politics at the kitchen table to actually having a say. Nobody moves overseas without a serious reason. Everybody who makes the move is invested in the host nation’s prosperity, often more so than locals who haven’t used their option to resettle elsewhere; emigrating for a second time is more than most emigres I know could bear.
Although the Covid pandemic has shown how easy it can be to close borders and retreat into a 20th-century kind of world where even casual travel is difficult, don’t expect migration to stop or even shrink significantly. The 281 million people living outside their countries of origin, up from 221 million in 2010, according to the United Nations, are already too numerous to deny most of them a right as fundamental as suffrage; it’s better to remove the most onerous obstacles now and replace them with a reasonable residency requirement than to end up with a nominal democracy in which major decisions are taken without consulting such a significant share of the population.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He recently authored a Russian translation of George Orwell's "1984."
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