How people with migrant backgrounds remain underrepresented in German politics

Karamba Diaby (SPD) votes in Saxony-Anhalt
Karamba Diaby (SPD) votes in Saxony-Anhalt on September 26th, 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hendrik Schmidt
First or second-generation migrants are set to make up more than 11 percent of Germany's parliament - but those with immigrant backgrounds are still underrepresented in politics. Could allowing easier routes to dual nationality change this?

On September 26th, German voters went to the polls to put an ‘X’ next to the candidates and parties they hoped would form part of the next government.

It was an election that saw more migrants than ever standing for office, as well as vast cohorts of young people, women and a few openly trans candidates. At least one candidate – Tareq Alaows, a Syrian refugee and Green Party member – ended up bowing out of the race, citing overwhelming amounts of discrimination and abuse. But many more fought on and were successful.

When MPs take their seats in the German parliament after this election, 83 of them will be people whose parents had no German citizenship, or who themselves started their lives without it. Due to Germany’s complex voting system, the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) has swelled to 735 seats this year, meaning that 11.3 percent of MPs now have a migration background. 

According to statistics from Mediendienst Integration, 26 percent of the German population is either a first- or second-generation immigrant, but for a long time this segment of the population has been drastically underrepresented in parliament. In 2017, for example, only 8.2 percent of MPs elected into the Bundestag had a migrant background, and in 2013, it was only 5.9 percent.

READ ALSO: ‘Germany is a country with a migrant background,’ says President Steinmeier

Researchers at Mediendienst Integration believe this could have something to do with the parties themselves – and Germany’s electoral system. While migrants do stand as candidates, they generally end up lower down on their party’s list of preferred candidates, which determines how likely they are to enter parliament.

That means that the pressure is on for them to win what’s known as a ‘direct mandate’ (securing the highest amounts of first votes), because if they don’t, and their parties don’t do extraordinarily well, they have a much smaller chance of representing their district in parliament. 

Leftwing MPs most likely to have a migrant background

The leftwing Linke party has the highest proportion of MPs with an immigrant background, with almost a third – 28.2 percent – of their new parliamentarians having roots outside of Germany. Most impressively, the proportion of Linke MPs with a migration background is even higher than the proportion of migrants in the population as a whole. 

In the SPD parliamentary group, 17 percent of the MPs now have a migration background, almost double the proportion of migrant social democrats that won seats in 2017. 

Among this year’s cohort are Armand Zorn, who was born in Cameroon and moved to Germany when he was 12, and Dr. Karamba Diaby, a Senegalese chemist who has been a member of parliament since 2013

Karamba Diaby poses for a photo
Karamba Diaby poses for a photo at an SPD conference in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Ronny Hartmann

When Diaby was first elected, he was only one of two Afro-German politicians in the Bundestag – but in the past eight years, things have slowly started to change. 

“It’s clear that the SPD parliamentary group has become significantly younger, more female and more diverse compared to the last legislative period,” Diaby told The Local.

“This was also due to the fact that young women and people with a migration background were given the opportunity to run for office in the local constituencies and we were able to achieve a significantly better election result than in 2017, with numerous comrades winning direct mandates.”

READ ALSO: Meet the Halle politician helping to challenge stereotypes of eastern Germany

The story isn’t the same for all parties, however. 

In the Green Party, the proportion of MPs with an immigrant background fell slightly from 14.9 to 13.6 percent in 2021, while the FDP also saw a slight decline from 6.7 percent to 5.4 percent in the most recent election. 

The CDU/CSU parliamentary group is still the parliamentary group with the lowest proportion of people with a migration background, with just 4.6 percent of its MPs – including the half-British Kai Whittaker – entering the Bundestag from a migrant background.

Somewhat surprisingly, even the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) managed to attract more first- and second-generation immigrants into its ranks than the conservatives, with around seven percent of its MPs having roots outside of Germany.

‘Important hurdles must be removed’

Experts at the Federal Immigration and Integration Council (BZI) believe the increasing diversity of parliament represents a positive trend – but argue that more should be done for German politics to become truly diverse. 

“The percentage (of MPs with a migrant background) is around 11 per cent, far below the percentage of people with a migration background in society,” Deniz Nergiz, CEO of BZI told The Local. “Nevertheless, the election results show a positive trend as far as the representation of politicians with a migration background is concerned.

“Above all, it is to be welcomed that with the entry of politicians with refugee biographies, especially within eastern Germany, such as Kassem Taher, Rasha Nasr and Reem Alabali-Radovan, as well as the entry of more Afro-German politicians, the diversity within this group has also increased.” 

Rasha Nasr celebrates the election results
Newly elected SPD politician Rasha Nasr (centre) celebrates the election results with fellow SPD politicians Martin Dulig and Stephan Schumann on September 26th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Robert Michael

Now that voters have contributed to this diversity with their votes, it is now the task of the parties in government to give these MPs ministerial posts, she said. But important changes to electoral and citizenship law could also pave the way for change. 

“Elections are only one – albeit a crucial – form of political participation, but for more political engagement, important hurdles still need to be removed,” Dr. Nergiz explained. 

“One of them is liberalisation of naturalisation, through general acceptance of multiple nationality, less bureaucracy, and the application of discretionary powers. The German passport opens up new horizons for political action.

“Another lever is to give non-EU citizens the right to vote in local elections. In this way, more people will be politicised and noticed by the parties, and this will also create more incentives for naturalisation in order to be able to participate politically even more.”

READ ALSO: How non-German residents might have voted in the election

Dual nationality key to political engagement

Diaby, who works as the SPD’s Integration Commissioner, agrees with Nergiz that Germany’s naturalisation and electoral laws should be softened to give immigrants more routes to political action and integration. 

During the last legislative period, he helped design his party’s integration concept, looking at how politicians could enable equal participation of all people in the central areas of society, such as work, education, health, and housing.

His paper made numerous recommendations for changes in policy, including allowing multiple nationality, giving local voting rights to non-EU nationals and appointing an anti-racism commissioner for the federal government. 

In the era of the ‘Grand Coalition’ between the SPD and CDU/CSU, however, there was little hope of genuine political change. 

“It seems important to me to finally open up access to dual citizenship,” Diaby said. “However, the issue of multiple citizenship has always been blocked by the CDU and CSU, so I hope that this will change in the new legislature with a new government.”

READ ALSO: 

With the SPD, Greens and FDP all supporting some form of dual nationality, a so-called ‘traffic light’ coalition could be good news for immigrants who want to become German while keeping their original citizenship. 

A sign points the way to a polling booth
A sign points the way to a polling booth during the local elections in Lower Saxony. Offering non-EU citizens votes in local elections could help foster political participation. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

Until that date, however, grassroots projects and local political platforms can offer migrants a means of building their political awareness and efficacy. 

“Municipal integration advisory councils must be strengthened, because that is where immigrants come closer to politics and participate in local politics, even before they have a German passport,” said Nergiz.

“And last but not least, it is important to provide state support for non-partisan projects, such as the BZI project Politik Akademie der Vielfalt (Political Diversity Academy), which activates and strengthens people with migration or refugee experience politically, so that the political landscape is more diverse in the future.”

While number of migrants in parliament is slowly but surely changing, Diaby feels that much of the work of bringing new voices into the political system is only just beginning.

“One thing is clear: even after the 2021 elections, the Bundestag still does not reflect the diversity we see among the population in Germany,” he said. “We must continue to work on this.”

READ ALSO: ‘Deadly for a democracy’: The group campaigning for non-Germans to gain voting rights


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