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Increasing Participation

Woman wearing a headscarf in front of the Brandenburg Gate

In recent years, integration policy in Germany has made major strides. At the same time, however, the challenges the country faces are not getting any smaller. One of the key goals remains building bridges between German society and its immigrants. Integration is no longer an issue that only affects a small minority, since 34 percent of children under the age of 6 now come from immigrant families, as recent census figures show. Moreover, forecasts by the Federal Statistical Office make clear that without additional immigrant inflows, Germany’s population will decline dramatically. At the end of 2009, moreover, the country was home to 6.69 million people who have exclusively non-German citizenship, representing 186 of the 192 United Nations member states. In light of such developments, German society must come to understand that it will have to welcome greater numbers of immigrants in coming decades, and integrating them will therefore be directly related to the issues of social cohesion and political participation.     

Immigrants are ardent democrats, a fact confirmed by the recent study “Democracy and Integration in Germany” carried out by the Allensbach opinion research firm on behalf of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. Of those respondents with a migration background, 70 percent say that democracy is the best form of government, a sentiment expressed by 77 percent of all respondents. A clear endorsement of life in Germany is the fact that 83 percent of immigrants said that they feel a connection to the country, compared to 88 percent of native-born Germans.

Yet their affinity for democracy does not mean that the newcomers are highly involved in the country’s political processes. The longer they live there, the less satisfied they are with Germany’s democratic system, an especially disturbing finding. Some observers might prefer to see this as “assimilation,” i.e. acclimation to what Germans themselves feel -- an attitude that robs the phenomenon of its significance and explosiveness.

In terms of political participation, immigrants are not well integrated into German society. This might be due in part to the immigrants’ own lack of engagement, since most non-Germans believe that they themselves must do more to integrate. Yet Germany’s policymakers must also get involved by improving the conditions that allow newcomers to get involved. The survey, for example, showed that only 40 percent of the 1,581 non-German respondents were eligible to participate in national elections, something that was true of only 24 percent of Turkish respondents, 11 percent of Italian respondents and 9 percent of interviewees from Greece. In terms of ensuring a vibrant democracy, it is more than questionable that so many foreigners permanently living in Germany cannot participate in the country’s most important election.

It seems clear that there is much untapped potential when it comes to increasing participation among immigrants in Germany’s political processes. In North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, the state with the highest rate of immigration, not one representative in the state legislature is an immigrant, something that readily demonstrates how necessary new approaches and a new mindset are.

The best ways for boosting participation remain controversial. It seems inevitable, however, that over the medium and long term it will be necessary to change the country’s voting laws, for example, or allow dual citizenship, if Germany wants to boost political participation rates among immigrants. The possibilities for success in this area can be seen in other countries such as the United States, Canada, Sweden and the UK, which make it much easier for non-natives to get involved.

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