Democracy & Justice

Solving Berlin's Inclusivity Problem: Are Non-Germans on the Political Sidelines? | Democracy Drinks

Liberties invited Ivan Gabor, co-founder of Wahlheymat. Fresh on Berlin’s NGO scene, Wahlheymat wants to make Berlin politically inclusive for non-Germans. In its vision for the future, Berlin's diversity inspires creative solutions for collective issues.

by Eleanor Brooks

After a brief hiatus, Liberties was delighted to catch up with our peers for Democracy Drinks Berlin. The sun shone down as we enjoyed a beer outdoors in one of Berlin’s many beer gardens.

Our special guest for this event was Ivan Gabor, one of Wahlheymat’s co-founders. Fresh on NGO scene, Wahlheymat was launched at the end of 2023 with the mission to make Berlin more politically and socially inclusive for newcomers.

As we sat around a few tables pushed together for a family-style gathering, Ivan shared his inspiration for forming Wahlheymat. He moved to Berlin in 2016 and spoke warmly about his time settling in, but described “hitting a glass ceiling” at some point. Curious to see if others had a similar experience, he chatted to “roughly 100 people” and found that many felt the same way.

Solving Berlin’s democratic deficit

Ivan was struck by the undemocratic nature of Berlin’s political fabric. A city known for diversity, roughly 25% of its residents were born outside of Germany, a further third of which a third are EU citizens. This means a sizeable chunk of the population has either limited or no voting rights: EU citizens can vote in municipal and EU elections, while nationals from third countries, 944,000 people as of December 2023 according to the Statistik Amt Berlin Brandenburg, cannot vote in any elections, even if they are permanent residents.

Wahlheymat believes in starting small and introducing new forms of governance that benefit Germans and newcomers. Practical changes like simplifying bureaucracy and making English a second working language could make a significant difference. To increase political inclusivity, Wahlheymat proposes boosting governance at the Kiez level. Strengthening the power of small communities increases collaboration between natives and newcomers and gives locals the collective power to influence the decisions that impact them the most.

Ivan emphasises that the work of understanding people from different cultural backgrounds should come from all directions. While the politics of ‘integration’ often focuses on recent arrivals adjusting to their new environment, it is equally important for locals to accept that German society is evolving in new and permanent ways. The process of change is often bumpy, but we should embrace rather than resist it. Berlin’s non-native community is far from a homogenous mass, with a wide spectrum of national, cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds represented.

However, there is some political pushback to expanding political rights.

Amongst Wahlheymat’s goals is the right to vote in state elections (“Landtagswahlen”) for all permanent residents, regardless of their country of origin. This has already been on the Berlin Senate’s political agenda but, according to Deana Mrkaja, another of Wahlheymat’s co-founders, it has stalled because there is little political incentive for the incumbent CDU to give electoral rights to a section of the population unlikely to give them their vote.

Tapping Berlin’s eclectic residents for creative solutions

As the evening draws to a close, Ivan marvels at the richness of Berlin’s diversity. A city that attracts people from all walks of life, no matter how niche your project you won’t have to look far to find an expert to answer all your questions. But a lingering resistance to embrace Berlin’s identity as a city indelibly shaped by migration means much of this potential remains untapped. According to Ivan, we should capitalise on Berlin’s eclectic and vibrant mix of residents for creative ideas.

Berlin has some tough years ahead and will require bold solutions to tackle the city’s sprawling problems. Embracing the talents of newcomers and locals alike will help us weather the storm together.

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Read our discussions at previous Democracy Drinks events:

‘Is it safe to protest in Germany?’ Protect the Protest: Shrinking Civic Space in Germany

Online Activism: Danger, Disinformation & the DSA

Polish Post-Election Analysis: Law and Justice or the Rule of Law?

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