Thursday, May 19, 2016

Council of Foreigners: elections for "foreigners only" in Germany

In Germany, elections take place on a regular basis that international readers know nothing about. These elections are rarely reported in the German media, so most natives don't know much either.

The local press will generally run a 100 word notice after the ballots have been counted, listing the names of the winners and citing a few warm words about the importance of migrants and democracy by the big city mayor or the county superintendent.

We are talking of elections to the Auslaenderbeirat, an advisory council legal foreign residents get to elect every five or so years to make their voices heard in the country's political system.

Born in the well meaning early 1970s as a result of concerns that the increasing number of immigrants was not represented anywhere, the councils are known in some locations as "integration councils". EU citizens get to vote in regular local elections as well as Auslaenderbeirat elections, all others get to vote for the Auslaenderbeirat, or whatever the local name is. The councils have a strictly advisory capacity, and it is up to the mayors/superintendents to actually listen.

Since the councils are a local county or city affair, their official presence varies widely. The council website for the million residents city of Munich, for example, is a German language only site, with a tiny English brochure tucked away at the bottom of the homepage.

Other cities provide at least several flyers about the requirements of daily life in Germany in multiple languages, including Turkish and sometimes Arabic in addition to English and French.

As in all elections, controversies do occur, and that's when the media tend to pay attention. The most common criticism of councils has been the alleged presence of "extremist" candidates on the ballot. Conservative native critics love to point at these as an example of the country's institutions being under threat.

The blogster has no particularly interesting opinion on the benefits of councils but finds the ballot papers a wee bit inappropriate.

As far as we have been able to determine, the ballots come in German only.

Not only in German but in administrative German, which can be as different from everyday German as Klingon is from English.

This is snarky, of course, because some places in the much maligned United States undertake the great effort to have ballots and ballot initiatives translated into Korean, Vietnamese or Spanish for US citizens.

But beyond the snark there is real disenfranchisement. Foreigners in Germany need to be residents for three or six months, depending on the locality, to be eligible to vote in the council elections. 

Even with a few weeks of "integration course" German classes, the instructions are beyond what can be reasonably expected from new residents.

While Germans generally like immigrants, despite the vocal folks of PEGIDA and others, official Germany seems to have a knack for coming up with something well intended that, at the same time, says "you are not one of us".

No comments:

Post a Comment