The Left Berlin News & Comment

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We must fight for the right to vote

One in eight German residents aren’t allowed to vote. This is a scandal that must be rectified


22/09/2021

Germany’s voting laws for resident non-citizens add another notable example to the country’s contradictions between its outwardly liberal reputation and its regressive reality.

As many as 8.7 million people could be shut-out of the political system – about 1 in 8 residents. Their only route to enfranchisement lies in gaining German citizenship, which comes with the caveat of renouncing citizenship of any other country. This too comes with an exception for EU citizens, who may hold joint citizenship with Germany. The exception is obviously racialised, and formal citizenship is itself a powerful barrier to the right to vote.

Furthermore, this mass of disenfranchised people is a pillar of the labour force that upholds Germany’s status as Europe’s largest economy despite its ageing population (21.5% of the population is 65+). And average wealth per citizen in Germany is the lowest in Western Europe; 40.6% of adults have wealth under 10,000 USD despite the average wealth per adult being 214,000 USD.

Wealth distribution in Europe Based on Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2018, visualisation by u/blarbolur_74 on Reddit

This figure may be partially explained by a lower propensity for home ownership. However, Germany has one of the worst, and underestimated, wealth disparities in Europe. A recent report found that the top 1% owned 35% of all German assets, not 22% as previously thought. These asset owners are generally older, male, and presumably German citizens.

The franchise was the key issue of The Social War, where Rome’s Italian allies were refused citizenship since it would upset the governing balance of political and economic forces prevailing in the city. Only through bloodshed and concessions of citizenship in exchange for ending hostilities did the matter get resolved. The famous slogan of the American War of Independence was “No taxation without representation”. What emerged was a so-called Republic of equals that negated the voice of women and constitutionally enshrined the most vicious slavery. The injustice of taxation without representation prevails today in the neoliberal global economy where borders regulate labour and its rights but allows capital to flow freely.

The explosion in written constitutions occurred in and around the French Revolution. To mobilise an entire nation to war, expanding its scale by an order of magnitude relative to the norm of the early modern period, required codifying the rights of citizens. To forge a nation, the price was blood and the reward was the franchise and the protections that came with it. It was these codified guarantees that allowed Napoleon to raise La Grande Armée, at the time the largest army in recorded history. It was in response to these mobilisations that precipitated other nations to follow suit.

Similarly, the fight for women’s suffrage was won due to the opportunities presented by war. Only when women’s economic and military necessity came to be realised before and during The Great War, did women begin to leverage their essential position in the war economy to bargain for the right to vote. Even then, suffrage spread unevenly and in many parts of the world with caveats. Switzerland did not give women suffrage until 1971.

It is necessary for us on the left to keep these facts in mind when we demand the right to vote for Germany’s immigrants. The challenges of this task demand going beyond making the clear moral arguments and recognising the structural impediments to this moral objective. Eroding these political blockades requires us to recognise our economic power within Germany and to organise ourselves effectively to win the rights we are owed.

Thomas Lacquer laid out in detail how the West German state, unlike the East, never eradicated its Nazism, nor did it adequately compensate its victims. The reunification of East and West operated more like an annexation that allowed the West German state to remain perfectly intact as a legal entity. This legacy plagues Germany today with the far-right becoming stronger, better organised, and more threatening to Germany’s immigrants. The AfD is now a permanent electoral presence and it vocalises a compressed German nativism, yearning to be released.

Establishment parties fear that the AfD can instrumentalise any effort to give immigrants the right to vote. The AfD has a slogan: “Unser Land, unsere Regeln” (Our country, our rules). This is both a threat and an expression of anxiety. Immigrants are threatened to abide by the discipline of Germany’s laws while also being told this country is not theirs. Simultaneously, the AfD expresses a latent fear of losing the power to extract labour without sharing political control.

Well, this is our country just as much as theirs. We immigrants are the struts that keep Germany’s economy upright. We care just as much about the land, about our neighbours, about our shared futures. We deserve a say in the rules that only citizens can affect.

A coalition of German leftists, trade unionists, democrats, and immigrants seeking their rights must be gathered to fight a two-pronged battle. Political organising must work in concert with labour agitation to send a message to a political class that thinks immigrants can be taken for granted.

Who Can and Can’t vote in Germany?

A third of Berliners do not have full voting rights. An explanation of who can vote and why this must change


21/09/2021

This is a speech that election candidate Juliana Wekel was due to give on Tempelhofer Feld on Friday, September 17th before she unfortunately fell ill.

There will be three elections and one referendum happening in Berlin on September 26th 2021.

First, there is the general, federal election which elects the Bundestag, the parliament for all of Germany. Second, there is the state-level election which elects the Berlin House of Representatives, the parliament of the city of Berlin. Third, there is the municipal election, which elects the council for every district of Berlin. And on top of that there is the referendum on Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen.

Generally, to be allowed to vote in Germany, you need to be a German citizen who is at least 18 years old. You must also have been officially registered in the place where you’re voting, such as Berlin, for at least three months, and you must not be excluded from voting for other reasons (for example, if a court took away your right to vote because you were deemed legally incapable of making your own decisions – but that’s a whole different issue). So, basically, German citizenship and 18 years old. This applies to the federal election, the state election and also the referendum. For the municipal election, you need to be at least 16 years of age, and in addition to Germans, citizens of other EU countries such as Poland and Spain can also vote. But that’s it.

The news outlet rbb recently ran an article that every third person in Berlin is not allowed to vote. Every third! The largest group of these are non-German citizens (about 790k people). The second-largest group is children below the age of 18. Just to repeat, one third of the inhabitants of Berlin are not allowed to have a say in who will govern them for the next five years.

Now, what does the actual law look like? There are, after all, countries who handle this differently, for example New Zealand does allow foreigners who live in the country permanently to vote. So, lets consider the legal situation in Germany. Short disclaimer, I’m not a lawyer, but what I’ve found is Article 20 paragraph 2 of the Basic Law of Germany (the constitution), which says: “All state authority is derived from the people.” “The people” in the Basic Law means the German people, which means people who have German citizenship, and there are rulings of Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court which underline this. Elections are an act of state authority, so this means that only German citizens are allowed to participate in elections, and this goes for the federal level and the state level. This also applies to state-level referenda if they are to be legally binding.

An exception is made for EU citizens at municipal level. This was written in the EU Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 and the EU countries had to implement it. Indeed, Germany changed its Basic Law to reflect this (they added to article 28 paragraph 1: “In county and municipal elections, persons who possess the citizenship of any member state of the European Community are also eligible to vote and to be elected in accordance with European Community law.”)

However, if you wanted EU citizens to be allowed to vote in other elections, or non-German and non-EU citizens to be allowed to vote in any election or referendum, you would need to change Germany’s Basic Law. For this, you need a two-thirds majority. And that is, unfortunately, extremely unlikely given the current political climate – you can’t do it without the CDU. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia tried something like this in 2017 and failed. Of course Die Linke will continue to fight for voting rights for non-Germans, and there are also other avenues besides changing the Basic Law that we can use to try to broaden participation, which other speakers will tell you more about.

What I Learned Knocking on Doors for the Berlin Housing Referendum

How Haustürgespräche set roots in the community and offer door to door solidarity


20/09/2021

Haustürgespräch translates as ‘doorstep conversation’. For most people this phrase probably evokes awkward experiences with earnest strangers hawking dishcloths or religious conversion. Most often these are unwanted encounters, kept as brief as politely possible. We not only wish not to be disturbed but also feel slightly uneasy at being collared right where we live. Our thresholds form the boundary between what we wish to deem our private sphere and the world outside. Even in a world of boundless social media where people happily post up pictures of their food, family, significant life-events and have daily meetings on Zoom; our actual physical living space still feels much more sancrosanct, a highly personal domain.

But what if the real threat to this sense of home and safety is not from a random salesperson or spiritual evangelist? What if it’s from the very organisation to which you pay money to live there? Or from a system which allows your home to be an object of financial speculation, that could easily price your tenancy out of your reach by the handing over of distant contracts you will never see? What if your neighbourhood is changing out of all recognition as wealthy owners turf out longstanding independent shops and fellow neighbours and you fear you’re next?

This is the terrain from which the initiave Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen has arisen. Having passed the first two hurdles of gathering enough signatures agreeing to the basic question: Should the Berlin Senate take (back) into public ownership the properties of private companies like Deutschen Wohnen and Vonovia each of whom own 3,000 or more dwellings in the city? (the second petition garnered the most signatures ever in a Berlin referendum campaign) The initiative and all its signatories has earned the right to a democratic vote of all Berlin citizens on the same day, Sunday 26th September 2021, as the national elections.

The efforts of the campaign to ensure that enough citizens (I’ll come back to that word later) vote yes, or rather Ja, to these basic question, have ramped-up even more impressively than those seen during the second signature collection. Dozens of volunteers have hoisted placards onto lamposts, put posters up in shops, bars and bistros, newspapers have been given out to commuters at under- and overground stations at the crack of dawn, beermats and flyers (in six or seven languages) distributed in venues in the twilight hours and from weekend stands in parks, hundreds of leaflets put in post-boxes. And, yes, doorstep conversations have been taking place not only in the inner city but throughout its far-flung suburbs.

Having only contributed minimally during the signature gathering stage (mainly down to Corona caution), passing petition sheets round my closest neighbours and donating a sanistising kit to a local organising hub, I joined the Neukölln Telegram group late in August to find out how I might do more in this crucial run-up to the vote. Someone posted up a call to join a team ringing doorbells in Rudow, the southern-most part of Neukölln, so I made myself known to the contact person and headed to the meeting point outside the U-Bahnhof on a Friday early evening.

Toting one of the distinctive yellow and purple bags, (bought at MyFest in 2019) I was easy to spot and the organiser beckoned me over to where she was standing with a group of other game but rather nervous looking comrades. Once everyone had arrived, we were asked if any of us had done this before, most hadn’t. Someone who had gave a helpful workshop: Giving our first names and that of DWE by way of introduction was key, then asking if the person had heard of the initiative and if so, what did they already know? Letting them speak, rather than doing some hard-sell bullet points of why to vote Ja, getting a human connection, not just spouting information. We are, after all, all renters, all in similar predicaments. Relay a personal story yourself if it’s relevant.

This was a relief, the other thing I’d been nervous about, along with my imperfect German, was my incapacity to reel off a thousand facts and figures. Don’t get into an argument, we were advised, if the person is hostile, thank them for their time and move on. Above all, don’t take it personally if someone is unfriendly and if they’re downright nasty, contact the organiser and get some emotional support.

There was a particularity to this door-knocking round, in fact the whole weekend had been named after it: Wochenende der Genossenschaften. This had something of a double meaning I was later to reflect. A Genossenschaft in German housing terms is essentially a cooperative but in Germany these are rather large concerns. In recent weeks, a certain Genossenschaft had sent out a letter to its thousands of members falsely claiming that the DWE campaign, if successful, would expropriate cooperatives, because they too sometimes had over 3,000 dwellings. No-one is sure why this disinformation campaign was launched but on this Friday evening, we were equipped with our own letters in sealed envelopes setting out the actuality, that cooperatives would in fact be exempt from any expropriation because their financial model does not prioritise profit for external shareholders and that instead, they guarantee fair rents and decent conditions for their member-residents, and were as such role-models. So, at the very least, if someone blanked us on the doorstep, they could be given or posted the letter containing this reassuring reality.

The time had come to get into pairs. The doorstep conversations aren’t advisable as a solo activity, for a start it’s exhausting so it helps to have someone to both take turns with and to reflect on technique and efficacy. A tallish young guy offered to pair up with me, saying we had a good demographic range. It’s not often that being older is an advantage but as many of the Genossenschaft members would be over 50, I knew we’d make a good team. He, let’s call him Tom, had done it before and he did the first five or six conversations, encouraging me after to start the next few.

The interiors of the buildings were, in this instance, clean and well-looked after. Some people weren’t at home or didn’t answer the door. Those who did were mostly courteous and curious. Our diffident introductions worked well to assure people we weren’t only trustworthy, we were absolutely on the same side. Everyone wants a secure place to live, an affordable rent, wants community. Some had read the letter from their Genossenchaft but most wanted to give us the benefit of the doubt.

Once I did my first few, I gained in confidence. No-one looked down their noses at my mixed up cases or adjectival endings, they were just curious as to what I wanted to say. And allowing them to talk first made it easier, finding out where they were at with things. The buildings in Rudow were lower rise than usual, only three floors, but nevertheless after an hour and a half of flights of stairs and the uncertain stress of waiting for someone to open the door, I was pretty wiped out. I travelled back with four of the crew and though the offer was there to go to a collective DWE get-together, I was conversationed out.

My next stint was in Britz on the Sunday afternoon, more Genossenschaften. I recognised B, another comrade from the Friday team. He looked upbeat but told me that the day before had been tougher, more hostility and rudeness. He had, he said, boned up on some useful info to counter some assumptions he’d encountered the previous day. We all did another workshop and were invited to contribute our own reflections on what seemed to work or not. I teamed up with B, the comrade I’d spoken to earlier.

The buildings were doubly high so we made use of the lift. We made contact with around 50% of the residents. This time, there was an interesting dynamic in that we started off with the softer introduction but if there any mistaken assertions or questions, B was ready with a clear set of facts and figures that were accessible and convincing. I was moved and impressed that he had responded to the hostility of the previous day with an impetus to be on top of a concise set of information. The residents took this on board and thanked us for our efforts.

Occasionally, on both days, there were people who weren’t even aware of the fact there was a referendum vote. They’d either assumed that the signature collection was the end goal or the whole campaign had simply passed them by. It’s easy to assume from one’s bubble of inner city political engagement, that the whole of Berlin are up to speed on what’s going on. This stressed even more the importance of personal contact, of conversations, of going outside one’s comfort zone.

The most recent time I took part was in an area of Neukölln near the station of Köllnische Weide. We met in a park, where there was to be an info stand full of DWE campaign literature in almost every language possible. One particular flyer was aimed at those without voting rights. We were told that the Siedlung (housing estate) that we were about to visit would have a higher percentage of people without the right to vote, non-citizens in other words, who nonetheless pay rent and other contributions and are as affected as anyone by the laws and conditions of the country. The flyer was to invite them to join a group to discuss with others like themselves the need to have rights within the civil society.

Our group was twice as big as the previous weekend but as someone who had had more experience, I was asked to relay my thoughts. In a serendipitous role-reversal, a young guy teamed up with me looking unsure and nervous. The buidings were more like tower blocks. We were told they had, up until the early 2000s, been public housing but had, in a shameful move by the leftwing Senate at the time, been sold to the private sector. They were now in the hands of Deutsche Wohnen.

The contrast with the Genossenschaft communal interiors was stark. Only one lift was working in the 12 storey tower we went in. The working lift had a gaping hole at the back, exposing it to the casing of the shaft. A resident came out and assured it was working. The conditions were an eye-opener if one had assumed that this company is all about high class renovation. We took the lift to the top and worked our way gradually down. It was gradual because we spoke to 80% of the residents. Half hadn’t heard of the campaign, about a third welcomed flyers in their first language, often Arabic or Turkish reading them avidly, about a third did not have voting rights. One woman, Croatian, was living with six others in a two bedroomed flat and had been applying in vain for re-housing over the last several years. We gave those concerned the non-citizen flyer, apologising to the woman there was none in Serbo-Croat.

The hallways were dingy and a number of doors were damaged but the people were uniformly friendly and grateful for the information and those who could vote, positive they would in the affirmative. A door behind which we heard several yappy dogs, was opened by a smiling woman who said she was voting Ja before we said a word. My companion’s confidence grew at each descending floor. The experience was sobering, moving and politically galvanising.

Yes, there were techniques, yes, as my last companion put it, there was a kind of flirting at play and yes there was the hope that all we spoke to will vote Ja on 26th. But most of all a dialogue was being started about fairness, ownership and the right to a home without fear. People who would normally never meet were realising how shared their wishes really were.

Carol McGuigan has lived in Berlin for 10 years, gaining dual citizenship in 2018.

 

Jamila Bleibt: Don’t Let Germany Deport a Trans Woman to Ethiopia

After the government refused her asylum application, campaigners are fighting for Jamila to stay


19/09/2021

Protesters carrying a placard reading "#Jamila bleibt" and a transgender pride flag pose for a photo

Jamila is a Trans woman from Qatar who fled to Germany via Ethiopia. In Ethiopia she was jailed for nearly one year because she is a Trans woman. The German government ministry for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) wants to deport her back to Ethiopia. Jenny, the organiser of the campaign, explains why Jamila must stay.

Hello. Could you start by explaining a little about the “Jamila Bleibt” campaign. What is your personal role in the campaign?

I heard about Jamila’s case on the social media platform Twitter (see the queer.de Article from 29.7.2021) and, with two other people, decided to organize a demonstration. I spoke to the press several times and we used our demonstration and our private social media presence to inform people about Jamila’s case in order to help her.

What is the specific danger to Jamila if she is sent back to Ethiopia?

She fears her murder. Her uncles will kill her if she comes back to Ethiopia.

And yet the German government ministry BAMF rejected Jamila’s appeal for asylum. Why?

Because she looks like a woman and can’t face discrimination in their eyes. She didn’t reveal her torture and fears earlier so it couldn’t be a big deal and they believe she can live with her injuries like wetting at night. She could use a diaper, said the ministry.

Is this rejection common? How does Germany usually treat Trans asylum seekers?

No, not common. Berlin as a state of Germany made a commitment to give LGBT refugees a safe shelter with special homes. But Germany in the past has often questioned whether refugees are really LGBT people.

Jamila is already a victim of torture. What is the current state of her physical and mental health?

She can’t sleep, she has to use a diaper because of wetting. She has this condition because of her nightmares, she has psychic stress.

Germany, and particularly Berlin, claims to be a LGBT-friendly place to live. What does Jamila’s case say about this claim? Do you sense a rise in Transphobia in German society?

On the one hand, Germany and particularly Berlin does a lot for LGBT people. But on the other hand the number of hate crimes against LGBT people is rising continuously. So, yeah, especially transphobia is rising.

You organised a demo for Jamila on 14th August. How did that go and what’s planned next?

As mentioned, together with two other people, I decided to demonstrate. I used my DGTI (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Transidentität und Intersexualität e.V.) resources to make an Facebook event in order to invite more people. We hope to find a safe home for Jamila and that she can stay.

About 50 Persons were at the demonstration, inclusive Jamila herself and other queer refugees. Speakers were myself for the dgti, Juliana, Marion-Nur, Jamila herself, Tuuli and another trans refugee.

How has the BAMF responded to your demo? Have they responded at all?

No, we didn’t hear anything from them. We demonstrated in front of them, but we saw nobody.

There will be local and general elections in Berlin and Germany soon. What are your demands and expectations of the political parties?

To expand the money for LGBT projects, to secure the LGBT institutions and stay committed to the Initiative “Berlin tritt ein für Selbstbestimmung und Akzeptanz geschlechtlicher und sexueller Vielfalt” (IGSV).

What happens now? Are further actions already planned?

We hope for a positive review of Jamila’s Case, and will make her story public through Social Media. Because of the recent suicide of a Trans person at Alexanderplatz we hope to strengthen the pressure on the BAMF to handle the cases of trans refugees better.

How can people support your campaign?

Use the #JamilaBleibt hashtag on Social Media, to support Jamila and to inform people about her case. Janka Kluge, my colleague from the DGTI, started an online petition campaign for Jamila. Sign it!

More information about the DGTI here.

Demo for Choice: 18th September 2021, Berlin

On 18th September, we demonstrated against the fundamentalist “Marsch des Lebens”. Here are some photos.


18/09/2021

Photos: Phil Butland, Rosemarie Nünning, Dervla O’Malley and others