Jessica Bither is a senior program officer for migration with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.
BERLIN – As Germans head to the polls on Sept. 24, nearly 6 million eligible voters, or 10 percent of all eligible voters, are themselves immigrants or the children of migrants — a number that is sure to grow in years to come. In contrast with their counterparts in the United States or Britain, however, German political parties have no history of targeting minority groups in political campaigns. But recent appeals to the country’s two largest migrant communities indicate that this might be changing.
Less than six weeks before the election, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called upon voters of Turkish descent in Germany to withhold their votes from three of Germany’s main political parties, the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats and the Greens, calling all of them “enemies of Turkey.” Meanwhile, the Alternative for Germany, poised to be the first far-right party to enter parliament in post-war Germany, has been busy courting potential voters from the immigrants of the former Soviet bloc.
In keeping with the past neglect of these constituencies, there is a conspicuous lack of data on migrant voters. It would be wrong to paint these groups as monolithic blocs, easily swayed by the promises and positions of one party alone. Current polling suggests that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats will win a solid victory, followed by the Social Democrats. The truly competitive race in this election is for third place, with four parties running neck and neck around the 10 percent mark. Here, even small numbers could make a difference. If these appeals to minority voters work, it will hurt Germany’s two mainstream parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, while potentially opening up opportunities for the far right.
According to the microcensus of 2016, there are currently 2.8 million people of Turkish descent in Germany, including former guest workers, their children and grandchildren. A recent study in 2016 by the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration indicated that this group has a strong affinity for the Social Democrats, nearly 70 percent. Ninety percent of these Turkish Germans support left-leaning parties combined (Social Democrats, Greens and the Left Party), while only 6 percent indicated that they support Merkel’s more conservative Christian Democrats.
While there are no exact figures on how many within this group are eligible to vote, working estimates used by government officials hover at roughly 800,000. This would be roughly 1.2 percent of the entire German vote. Thus, if voters of Turkish origin follow Erdogan’s advice, the Social Democrats stand to lose the most votes in total numbers from this group. At the same time, the impact in terms of percentages would truly only matter for the smaller parties fighting around the 9 percent to 10 percent mark.
Approximately 3.1 million immigrants from countries of the former Soviet Union live in Germany. The overwhelming majority of them came as so-called Aussiedler (“emigrants”) in the 1990s, because they were able to claim German citizenship under German ancestry laws. They form the single largest immigrant group of eligible voters (an estimated 2 million-2.4 million), or about 3 percent of the voting population. Traditionally, the Soviet Germans overwhelmingly supported the conservative parties. But a poll last year by the Expert Council on Integration and Migration showed a “dramatic collapse” in this support, which fell to 45 percent. According to a survey from October 2016, nearly 40 percent consume solely Russian-language online media.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has made a particular effort to target this group of disenchanted conservative voters by pandering to identity issues, calling for a lifting of sanctions against Russia, and heavily fanning dissatisfaction with Angela Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis. It has published its election program and flyers in Russian, created its own network of “Russian-Germans in the AfD” with regional sub-branches and touts Russian Germans as AfD candidates. In August, it held a “Russia Congress” in Magdeburg, complete with pro-Russian slogans and policy recommendations. Last year, the AfD played a prominent role in disseminating the spurious story of a Russian German girl who claimed to have been raped by Middle Eastern migrants (the so-called Lisa Case).
Germany does not collect data on affiliation with a particular minority or migrant community during the vote, so it will be difficult to tell how the votes of these groups have an impact on the outcome of the election. It does seem safe to say that the issue of minority voting will grow in importance. Currently, 22.5 percent of all people in Germany are migrants or have at least one parent who is an immigrant. Thirty-eight percent of all children under 10 in Germany are foreign-born or second generation, and in some cities the “migrant background” children proportion is even higher, such as in Bremen, where it is 58 percent.
It is correspondingly clear that the targeting of minority groups will become increasingly important in German campaigns — and with it will come more potential for the political exploitation of cultural divides.