Germany’s ‘2015 migrant wave citizens’ cast first votes

German election updates

Some of the 1m refugees admitted to Germany by Angela Merkel in the 2015 migrant crisis cast their votes on Sunday as they took part in the country’s first elections since becoming citizens.

“When I got those citizenship papers in my hand, it was my very first thought: I can vote,” said Yara Saifan, 34. “And then immediately afterwards, a rush of conflicted feelings.”

For Saifan and other refugees who supported the 2011 Syrian uprising and fled its ensuing war, the chance to participate in democracy — but not where they planned — was bittersweet.

“I still consider myself a refugee — all these years in Germany I’ve had to prove myself: that I can speak the language, that I am integrated,” she said. “Suddenly I have a piece of paper that made me a first-world citizen. I have rights, I can travel, and I can vote.”

It was a contrast with Saifan’s university days in Damascus, where she grew up. Members of President Bashar al-Assad’s ruling Ba’ath party, which has run the country for five decades, would gather students on to buses to take them to polls where Assad would inevitably win.

“As soon as they let us off the bus, I’d slip away,” she recalled. “So this is really my first experience voting ever.”

Her friends shared photos of their voter registration papers as a moment of celebration. She clutched her paper as she walked to the polling centre. 

Saifan learned the basics of Germany’s electoral system in her integration course. But it did not prepare her for the country’s complex mix of first-past-the-post voting and proportional representation. Voters cast two votes, not necessarily for the same party. 

“What I realised from talking to my German friends was that now I also have to think of my vote in terms of strategy,” she said. 

Germans have been calculating their vote based on possible coalitions, especially in this extremely close race. The parties whose candidate is most likely to succeed Merkel as chancellor — her centre-right Christian Democrats and the centre-left Social Democrats — have been neck-and-neck in polling. The Greens and pro-business Free Democrats are also likely to enter a three-party coalition government.

“It was really nerve-racking,” said Bakri Haj Bakri, another first-time voter. “I feel a deep responsibility — you’re participating in building the future.”

Many voters of refugee background said they were choosing between the Greens and the far-left Die Linke party because of their more open policies on asylum and immigration.

Yara Saifan, 34, smiles outside a polling centre in her Berlin neighbourhood after voting for the first time in her life in the German election © Erika Solomon/FT

Although 26 per cent of Germans today have an immigrant background (first or second generation), many refugees feel racism has worsened in recent years, from discrimination at work or renting apartments to more serious threats.

Tareq Alaows, 31, aimed to be the first refugee to run for the German Bundestag when he announced his candidacy for the Greens this spring. He received hate mail and death threats, and withdrew from the race after he was attacked on the street.

“Every part of a society needs to be represented politically so that our democracy can reach its full potential,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve reached that goal yet.”

But German parties are starting to notice that the influx of refugees could someday become a voting bloc, he said.

For now refugees are a small minority of Germany’s 60m voters — only some 6,700 Syrians have become citizens since 2015.

Saifan, who decided to vote Green and Linke, walked out of the booth with a nervous smile and a wave at a neighbour.

Asked how she felt after voting, she shrugged: “It’s not that I think just by crossing an X on a paper that all my dreams will be realised.” Then she added with a chuckle: “But then again, they might.”

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