A decision by Germany’s high court means that Poles with German ancestry can now take part in September’s general election via absentee ballot. For many members of the minority group, the change is of huge symbolic importance.
Previous governments in Berlin have argued that those who have never resided in Germany are not connected to the country — and thus shouldn’t be allowed to cast ballots. Previously, German expats had to have lived in Germany for a minimum of three months in order to qualify.
But one year ago, Germany’s Constitutional Court struck down the provision, agreeing with two plaintiffs who argued that their rights as German citizens had been infringed upon. They had been born in 1982 in Belgium but never lived in Germany, and were not allowed to vote in the 2009 election as a result.
The new status is unprecedented in Europe, where most citizens lose their right to vote in their home country after approximately 15 years of living abroad. But the specific historical circumstances that led to the settlement of Germans in present-day Poland — which dates back to the early medieval period — make it difficult to compare the German minority to other expat groups.
Of the estimated 300,000 ethnic Germans still living in Poland, many have strong links to Germany such as relatives, property, pensions and bank accounts. Kosak, a long-time activist for German minority rights in Poland, encouraged his four children to emigrate soon after the collapse of Communism in 1989. “Of course I care about the outcome of the German election. It’s going to have a direct impact on my children’s children,” he says.
In an effort to get as many ethnic Germans as possible to apply for absentee ballots, Lukasz Bily, of the Union of German Socio-Cultural Communities in Poland, has launched a multimedia campaign. Flyers and posters have been distributed, informational websites have been launched and Bily gave a series of seminars to show people how to fill out the paperwork. “The deadline for absentee ballot applications is September 1,” he says. “So if people want to act, they have to act fast.”
Despite the effort, it remains to be seen how many ethnic Germans in Poland will actually end up voting in the election. Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, tensions can still flare up between ethnic Germans and their Polish neighbors. Many in the community would rather keep their heritage under wraps — one reason, it is suspected, why the number of people declaring German ancestry in Poland’s 2011 national census was extremely low.