The rest of Europe eagerly awaits the outcome of the German federal elections on September 26th, as they are significant for the future politics of the entire continent.
This was a strange campaign for German standards. Even perennial domestic themes such as integration, security on the streets and education were sidelined by discussions about the personalities of the top candidates and the response to the pandemic. It is disappointing to note that little attention has been paid to the state of democracy in Germany by politicians and pundits alike. And yet, potential sources of domestic dissatisfaction in Germany could fuel anti-democratic forces at home and abroad.
High turnout and fair campaigning will reconfirm the soundness of the German electoral process. Possible domestic and foreign interference notwithstanding, there is little doubt about the integrity and legitimacy of these elections. Yet there is increasing concern that Germany’s democracy is no longer future proof.
All mainstream political parties have committed themselves to strengthening democracy at home – on paper. In practice, only the Greens’ manifesto mentions reform of what is by now seen by many living in Germany as a system out of touch, and even this stated commitment reads like campaign rhetoric when considering the concessions they would be expected to make in the event of them becoming a minority partner in government.
Moreover, other parties seem to be quite content with the status quo of the current democratic setup in spite of all its deficiencies.
Political participation and citizenship conundrum
The coming legislature could be a good time for courageous leadership and reform, in the face of major challenges.
First, during the tenure of the next parliament, approximately 1 in 5 people of voting age residing in Germany will be de facto fully or partially excluded from the electoral system. Shocking as this statistic may seem, the calculation is simple. In 2020, 11.4 million people or 13.7% of the total population residing in Germany did not hold German citizenship. Add to this the fact that Germany will require between 200,000 to 400,000 new workers per year until 2060 to sustain its productivity and pension system.
With the share of non-German citizens residing in Germany growing at a rapid pace, Germany will soon have a three-tiered citizenry: German nationals – as full voters, other EU nationals – as partial voters and third-country nationals – as non-voters. If not addressed, the continued lack of representation of such a significant proportion of law-abiding, tax-paying non-citizens, could become a democratic time bomb.
If tackled head-on in the next legislature, Germany could serve as an example for how to resolve the political participation and citizenship conundrum.
Germany can take modest pride in the efforts made to diversify its political class. All the same, the second and third generation of Germans with foreign-born parents and grandparents have had to fight their way into the ranks of the mainstream parties.
Germany’s current citizenship and naturalisation legislation, even more, extensive rights of representation afforded to EU citizens, are part of the problem.
Looking at such a significant chunk of the population only from an economic perspective, and hoping that the first generation will remain patient for decades so that their children can access such rights is dangerous. A political debate about alternatives to the binary of citizenship or none is long overdue.
One approach might be to extend certain political rights to fellow EU citizens with permanent residency, who have no need or intention to request German citizenship, but who will remain long term in the country. Extending the mandates of the migration councils and giving them real access to and influence over the ability to contribute to the political agenda, even though the constituencies they represent cannot vote, might be another.
Finally, the naturalisation process can be simplified and accelerated. The Expert Council on Integration and Migration (SVR), an advisory body, has just recommended to cut the period from 8 to 4 years and cut many hurdles. Compared to the rest of Europe, the proportion of foreigners who apply for naturalisation is relatively low in Germany, making it fifth from the bottom only above Denmark, Austria, Slovakia and Lithuania.
Second, German democracy will never progress if it cannot overcome its 32-year-old East-West divide.
The political mainstream might complain about declining membership in former West Germany, but they have never managed to gain a real foothold in the ‘new Laender’. Given that the two most popular parties in the Eastern states, Die Linke (The Left) and the Alternative fur Deutschland, will not be part of any governing coalition any time soon, citizens in the East will continue to resent their sense of being second-class citizens.
Political scientists in Germany and elsewhere have shown that political parties are no longer seen as the only vehicles for citizen participation even in the West, although no other form of representation has replaced them. It is true that there is no shortage of informal grass-roots citizens’ participation.
There is only one clear example of a government that has introduced a special minister for citizen engagement and civil society--the Green government in the State of Baden Wurtemberg. The new German government should, therefore, be concerned with immediately piloting alternative methods of getting citizens involved with a focus on the East.
Championing innovations in democracy such as citizens assemblies, introducing special agencies for citizenship outreach, introducing a second chamber of the local assembly by lot (as in Eupen, the capital of the German-speaking region of Belgium), as well as a significant boost in funding for the “Demokratie leben program” and the institutionalisation of this funding scheme through a Democracy Promotion Act should be a priority.
Civil society and politics
A third, and no less dramatic challenge, is Germany’s outdated definition of politics, which basically only sees political action as possible and legitimate within the triangle of political parties/government, business and trade unions. But civil society has grown and advanced in a stark contradiction of the outdated laws regulating it.
The fact that a civil servant in a local tax office has the power to grant or rescind the vital charity status from organisations if they consider the work of an organisation ‘political’ is not only arbitrary, it is harmful. While in both their coalition contract and their election programs, the CDU/CSU and the SPD demonstrate concern for state enforcement of the rules, the crux of the problem is an outdated conceptualisation of politics. The Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte (GFF) has drafted a law that can satisfy the appetites of the conservatives for control and oversight but also gives space to civil society organisations to operate without fearing repercussions.
The list of challenges does not end here. The question of how to balance freedom of speech and decrease the rise in hate crime, the AfD, and discussions about reform of the electoral model also linger. The challenges outlined above may be less prominent than those perennials, but they are no less fundamental.
The coalition that ends up governing Germany for the next four years shall neglect these issues to the detriment of the political system, the cohesion of society and its own political relevance.
Goran Buldioski is the director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe.