“Your class and education decide whether you can vote in Germany”

Read Phil Butland’s interview with Voting Rights Activist Sanaz Azimipour from Nicht Ohne Uns -14%


Hello Sanaz. Could you start by letting us know who you are, and let us know a little about Nicht ohne Uns 14%

My name is Sanaz Azimipour. I am an activist and writer based in Berlin, Germany. I studied Economical Mathematics and Gender Studies. I co-founded the campaign Nicht Ohne Uns 14% – Not Without Us in English – with other activists. It’s a campaign for voting right for people who don’t have German citizenship.

We started a year ago in June 2021, a couple of months before the national election in Germany. Our original demand was voting rights in the national parliamentary election, as well as local and communal elections for everyone who’s been living here for five years.

As there were also local election in different German cities and States, we then also made demands on a local level.

Let’s start with the basics. Who can vote in Germany and who can’t?

Voting rights in Germany, like many other countries, are directly connected to the passport privilege. If you want to take part in the national elections, you have to have German citizenship. There are 10 million people in Germany without citizenship. Most of them have been living here for more than 10 years. A lot of people who were born here are excluded from voting because they don’t have citizenship.

One of the reasons that people don’t have German citizenship is because getting naturalization is based on very different privileges, in particular income. This means that your class and education decide whether you can vote. For example, single parents who are migrants and work part time can never be naturalized, although they are the first people who are actually affected by government policies, especially during the pandemic.

14% of the German population cannot vote in the national elections. Many people can also not vote in referenda and for local politicians, although EU citizens can vote in local elections.

This is interesting for two reasons. First, local voting rights for EU citizens was added to the Constitution. And yet one of the main arguments used against voting rights for everyone is that it would need a change to the German Constitution. But this has already happened.

The second interesting thing is that EU voting rights shows the hierarchy of power. First come the German citizens, who have the right to participate. On the second level are European citizens. Below them are people from other countries – in German it’s called “Drittstaatsangehöriger”.

At the bottom, there are undocumented people, for whom getting naturalisation is a very complicated or impossible process. Because if you don’t have documents you don’t have access to anything that the State is providing.

Can I pick up something you said earlier? You mentioned people who were born in Germany but don’t have voting rights. How can that happen?

Naturalization is a very complicated process. In Germany, you’re normally not allowed to have citizenship of more than one country. There are some exceptions, like the US, Iran and the EU.

This affects the Gastarbeiter who came to Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. In order to gain German citizenship, they have to lose their other citizenship, which is usually Turkish. For many people, that wasn’t what they wanted, because losing Turkish citizenship means also losing touch with everything that you have in the other country. So for many people this is not even an option.

It also affects the second generation of workers. People who were born before 2000 without German parents couldn’t get German citizenship. There are many people here whose parents were born in this country, but they still cannot get citizenship. If you are stateless, for example if you are Palestinian, it’s even more complicated.

There is a person from our campaign who was born in Germany. His parents moved to Germany more than fifty years ago and even his children were born here. After 50 years, he still doesn’t have German citizenship, because in order to get German citizenship, he has to first get Macedonian citizenship. But he’s never been to Macedonia in his life. And the Macedonian embassy won’t give him a passport because he’s from the Roma community.

For many people, it was never an option to get naturalization, and this is always a question of class. If you don’t have enough income, then you cannot have German citizenship. And then your children will not directly get German citizenship, even though they were born here.

Besides that, there are many people who even don’t want citizenship, as they don’t like being asked to prove that they are loyal to a certain state or nation, yet their right of political participation will be taken away.

I could say from my experience, that to get German citizenship, even a white European must first pay €250, and about as much again in administrative fees. If you’re unemployed, they’ll just reject you. And that’s for people at the top of the privilege ladder. For those at the bottom it must be much worse.

Yeah. You have to imagine what it’s like for the people who have been born and raised in Germany, and went to school and university here. And then you have to do an integration test, even though you’ve never lived in any other country.

This is a good example of who is being excluded. Although our campaign is about voting rights, it’s also about way more than that. Voting rights is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s also about how we understand democratic rights. Hannah Arendt talks about “the right to have rights”, which I think resonates. If you don’t have citizenship, then you don’t have the right to have rights, in the sense of political participation.

At the same time, it’s expected from migrants and racialized people that they engage in the society, even while they’re being excluded.

We’ve talked about the problems. What are you and Nicht Ohne Uns doing to try to solve them?

We are a self-organized campaign. That means that we’re all people who don’t have voting rights. This is very empowering, and shows that movements have been started by migrants themselves.

We also have allies and German citizens who support us. I think it’s very necessary to build this alliance, because it’s important that shouldn’t be the problem of the people who are directly affected by it. It’s a problem for all citizens.

We started with an online petition, because that was the only way to raise awareness. Through this, we got a lot of media attention. We were then able to develop the campaign on two different levels.

One level was to build the connections and intersectionalities between different movements. It was important to reach out to other campaigns and organizations. These included ABA (Aktionsbündnis Antira – action alliance anti-racism) and other anti-racist organisations. There was also Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen who fight for housing rights in Germany, and many others.

There are people who are also fighting for workers rights for people who don’t have German citizenship. The situation for them is ten times worse because they risk losing their jobs and residency permit.

We organized different demonstrations, like the one together in April before the elections. We also went to different German States, like NRW – before the regional elections we demonstrated in different cities to raise awareness.

This is very important because there are so many people who don’t know about the voting deficit. Every time we say 14% of the population don’t have voting rights, everybody like What? Wait? 14%? Nobody knows that it is 10 million people.

We also got in contact with politicians and ask them about their plan and position. In Berlin, for example, we could put our demands for voting rights for everyone who has been living here for 5 years into the coalition contract. Since then, we’ve had a very good exchange with the politicians, who have held a commission for voting rights.

We’re now looking at the next steps. We’re part of a bigger Volksinitiative called Demokratie für Alle. We succeeded in the first round where we had to collect 20,000 signatures. This meant further work with other initiatives.

You’ve talked about how you have raised awareness through demonstrations and media work. But there are specific problems in gaining attention of the 14% of people who are directly affected. They don’t all speak German, they don’t necessarily follow German media. They’re not all involved in other campaigns as many campaigns exclude non-Germans. How are you able to reach to reach the people who you’re fighting for?

Most of the people in my bubble are immigrants like me. They have to struggle about more basic things than voting rights. For them voting rights can be seen as a luxury or a privilege problem. If you have to work 12 hours a day, you don’t necessarily really care about fucking voting rights. This is a very understandable problem.

But it doesn’t matter how many people come to demonstrations, even if you’re three people in the streets. People get empowered and mobilized. There’s this guy who’s been campaigning for voting rights with his bike for 30 years, mainly in Kreuzberg. Maybe you’ve seen him on the street. Seeing him too is very empowering.

How important are voting rights of themselves? We had a referendum in Berlin to expropriate the big landlords. We won, although one million people were excluded from voting. The landlords haven’t been expropriated. We voted in a Red-Green government and we’ve got war, inflation, and attacks on the environment. Do voting rights actually matter?

Not necessarily.

Of course, voting is important, because you’re acting to change the construct of what’s right. But I don’t think that voting rights themselves will necessarily change anything. These 10 million people are not a homogeneous group. They have different political views and if voting was supposed to change something on that big scale it would have.

Of course, it has some effects. And one of the effects could be that maybe right wing parties would have to change their policies in order to gain some votes from the migrant community. But on a bigger structural kind of level, I’m not sure if it will make that huge a difference. It’s not a revolution.

But at least the next step, is that people get involved in social movements, right? And one of the social movements is for voting rights. How can people get involved, especially if they don’t speak German and are not involved in existing organizations.

We have a lot of people who speak very different languages. We always think about how to include other people. That’s why for example for our demonstration we wrote and read out our joint Declaration in different languages. I think that was very powerful.

For me, having different languages on a demonstration is a way of occupying the street. It’s a really powerful sign, especially in Germany, to see people speaking in microphones, in German, with accents, or in Turkish, or in Arabic to people who are being directly excluded from society.

We also have different platforms on social media. We have a Twitter account, an Instagram account, a website. Everybody can write us, and say that they want to be involved. We have a mailing list. Everybody can join the next meetings.

I really want to invite people to join not necessarily in the campaign, but also in our struggle, because it’s about something more basic and way bigger than just voting rights. Whether you want to vote or not, I think it’s very important to get engaged in that.

You can support us by translating or organising demonstrations or just joining a demonstration. It’s really important to go towards that goal of democratic rights for everyone, and build the networks we need to make that possible.

What are you doing next?

We’ll be organising an Event on 15th September, the Day of Democracy. We’ll be posting more about it on our Instagram page.

NOTE: After we published this  interview, one of our readers sent the following feedback:

According to Germany-Visa.org, in principle, Germany does not allow dual citizenship. However, the German nationality law was recently changed to allow more people to qualify for dual citizenship. Now, children born to at least one German citizen may qualify for multiple nationalities, while others— who meet the qualifying criteria— can apply to hold German dual citizenship.