refugee reporter

Where the Dead Don't Vote

Wahlplakate des CDU-Politikers Nöll (oben) und Berlins Regierendem Bürgermeister Müller (SPD) zur Wahl des Berliner Abgeordnetenhauses hängen am 03.08.2016 in Berlin an einem Laternenpfahl. Foto: Wolfram Kastl/dpa (zu dpa «Plakate zur Wahl in Berlin: Schlaue Ideen, aber wenig Neues» vom 04.08.2016) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Competing parties advertise for support in local elections where the refugee crisis is of cardinal importance.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    For refugees, the local elections in Berlin are a first taste of democratic elections. They know that the issue of the refugee crisis will determine the outcome.

  • Facts


    • Berliners will vote on the candidates for the city-state’s parliament on September 18, 2016.
    • Berlin’s state parliament has 149 seats and is currently headed by mayor Michael Müller, a Social Democrat who governs in coalition with the CDU.
    • Last year, 1.1 million refugees sought asylum in Germany, fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa.
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Berlin right now is plastered with photos of smiling faces, candidates for the local parliamentary elections. Everywhere you look, you see images of men and women, older and younger people, Germans with African, Asian and Latino roots, gay and straight people, disabled and able-bodied.

This election is the first time many of the refugees who came to Berlin last year will experience a real electoral process where everyone is equal.

The refugees can’t vote, of course, but it is a good experience for the many who have never never experienced an election before.

Many of the people who have come here fleeing war and poverty in their countries are hungry to learn from Germany. Among the things they admire is the way it managed to rebuild itself after World War II.

Many things cannot be taught in universities, such as the values of democracy, individual liberties and the role of civil society.

Dozens of engineers, doctors and university students now want to learn how to rebuild their own countries.

But many things cannot be taught in universities, including the values of democracy, individual liberties and the role of civil society. Belief in the electoral process is another thing that cannot be taught. But refugees need to adopt these values, which will help protect their communities from corruption, chaos and conflict.

Here, you don’t see special privileges for some political groups and parties. You don’t see candidates’ electoral tents giving food to voters.

Candidates can’t bribe people to vote for them. Agents working for candidates can’t collect thousands of IDs and go to the polling station to register them. And you can’t just use an electricity bill as a voter ID. Only the living can vote, not the dead – as they have somehow done in many of our countries.

Only the living can vote, not the dead, as they did in many of our countries.

There are more differences: Politicians don’t hang their posters everywhere as though all walls belong to them.

They can’t put their own photos on top of those of another politician, hiding their opponents’ faces. Here, there are rules about where posters can go, and breaking those rules can cost politicians their future.

In the last parliamentary elections in Syria, candidates’ photos were hung right next to images of nightclub artists and singers. You could only tell who was a politician and who was a minor celebrity by the captions. Lying slogans about press freedom or women’s rights told you what you were looking at was the picture of the potential prime minister.

In Syria, nobody believes in parliament anyway, not even the MPs who are just obedient employees.

Here in Germany, the posters are pretty different and initially, a bit confusing. Still even if refugees don’t speak much German or haven’t gotten involved in politics yet, they know a bit about what is going on here.

They know about the main parties and the politicians. They know more about extreme right wing parties and the Pegida movement and the Alternative for Germany party, as these are the ones who heartily oppose their presence in Germany. Some parties are trying to pit German voters against refugees while others try to present the refugee issue as a cause for hope and success.

Many refugees hope that the extremist parties won’t do well, and that instead the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats and the Greens will defeat them. After all, the refugee issue is at the heart of this coming election, and will determine whether one party fails or another succeeds.

But some things about this election are still confusing and some posters take getting used to, like those placed by the Pirate Party.

It’s not an animated movie for kids or a Play Station game but a political party with members of parliament – although I don’t know if they wear an eye patch in parliament, or not. Pirate Party posters show pigs smiling into cameras, or clowns, making other political parties’ posters look a bit, well, sedate.

The refugee issue is at the heart of this coming election, and will determine whether one party fails or another succeeds.

The Green Party, for example, advertises with black and white posters. The Christian Democrats show a candidate holding a baby.

For me, what matters is that parties are clear about their refugee policies. Today, beyond social welfare, unemployment levels, education, economic reform and the environment, it seems the refugee issue is all important.

A lot of refugees know that a radical right-wing party did well a few months ago in three German states where there were posters and slogans opposing Islam and refugees.

They hope this won’t happen in Berlin. They don’t want to see posters like that next to the photos of Berlin’s mayor Michael Müller, where he is standing by a woman wearing a headscarf  to show that his party, the Social Democrats, still supports an open-door policy for refugees.


Yahya Alaous is a reporter for Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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