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German election: Are immigrant voters ignored?

  • September 15, 2021

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.

Activist Ali Can wants to draw attention to discrimination, also in German politics

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.

Few parties directly address immigrant voters with their election posters

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.

  • ‘We are from here’: Turkish-German life in pictures


    In 1990, Istanbul-based photographer Ergun Cagatay took thousands of photographs of people of Turkish origin in Hamburg, Cologne, Werl, Berlin and Duisburg. These will be on display from June 21 to October 31 at the Ruhr Museum as part of a special exhibition, “We are from here: Turkish-German Life in 1990.” Here he’s seen in a self-portrait in pit clothes at the Walsum Mine, Duisburg.

  • ‘We are from here’: Turkish-German life in pictures

    Seeking their fortune

    Two miners shortly before the end of their shift in an old-style passenger car at Walsum Mine, Duisburg. Due to a rapid economic upturn in the ’50s, Germany faced a shortage of trained workers, especially in agriculture and mining. Following the 1961 recruitment agreement between Bonn and Ankara, more than 1 million “guest workers” from Turkey came to Germany until recruitment was stopped in 1973.

  • ‘We are from here’: Turkish-German life in pictures

    Germany’s economic miracle

    Shown here is the upholstery production at the Ford automobile plant in Cologne-Niehl. “Workers have been called, and people are coming,” commented Swiss writer Max Frisch back then. Today, the Turkish community, with some immigrants’ families now in their fourth generation, forms the largest ethnic minority group in Germany, with 2.5 million people.

  • ‘We are from here’: Turkish-German life in pictures

    Demanding more rights

    During his three-month photo expedition through Germany, Cagatay experienced a country in transition. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, Germany was in the process of becoming a multicultural society. Here a demonstrator is seen at a rally against the draft of the new Aliens Act, in Hamburg on March 31, 1990.

  • ‘We are from here’: Turkish-German life in pictures

    At home

    The photos provide an insight into the diversity of Turkish-German life. Seen here is the eight-member family of Hasan Hüseyin Gül in Hamburg. The exhibition is the most comprehensive coverage on Turkish immigration of the first and second generation of “guest workers.”

  • ‘We are from here’: Turkish-German life in pictures

    Taste of home

    Today, foodstuff like olives and sheep’s cheese can be easily found in Germany. Previously, the guest workers loaded their cars with food from home during their trips back. Slowly, they set up their culinary infrastructure here in Germany, to the delight of all gourmets. Here we see the owners of the Mevsim fruit and vegetable store in Weidengasse, Cologne-Eigelstein.

  • ‘We are from here’: Turkish-German life in pictures

    ‘Like a forest in brotherhood’

    Children with balloons at the Sudermanplatz in Cologne’s Agnes neighborhood. On the wall in the background is a mural of a tree with an excerpt of a poem by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet: “To live! Like a tree alone and free. Like a forest in brotherhood. This yearning is ours.” Hikmet himself lived in exile in Russia, where he died in 1963.

  • ‘We are from here’: Turkish-German life in pictures

    Quran lessons

    At the Quran school of the Fatih mosque in Werl, children learn Arabic characters to be able to read the Quran. It was the first newly built mosque with a minaret in Germany that was opened at that time. People no longer had to go to the backyard to pray.

  • ‘We are from here’: Turkish-German life in pictures

    ‘May you grow old with one pillow’

    Photographer Cagatay mingles with guests at a wedding at Oranienplatz in Berlin-Kreuzberg. In the Burcu event hall, guests pin money on the newlyweds, often with the wish “may you grow old with one pillow”; newlyweds traditionally share a single long pillow on the marital bed.

  • ‘We are from here’: Turkish-German life in pictures


    Traditions are maintained in the new homeland too. Here at a circumcision party in Berlin Kreuzberg, “Mashallah” in written on the boy’s sash. It means “praise be” or “what God has willed.” This exhibition is sponsored by the German Foreign Office, among others. In addition to Essen, Hamburg and Berlin, it is also being held in cooperation with the Goethe Institute in Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara.

    Author: Ceyda Nurtsch

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.

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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