Between a form of government and way of life
Carolin Friedrich has to smile when she passes the ultramodern complex of Riedberg High School with its glass facades and open architecture on her way to work every morning. “This school is the reason why I got involved in politics,” explains the Chair of the Local Advisory Council for two city districts in the northern part of Frankfurt am Main. Carolin Friedrich and her family were confronted with a serious problem in 2009: no high school was able to take their second son; there was no place available for him anywhere. “The projected student numbers had been wrong, and there was a shortfall of hundreds of places,” says Friedrich.
She wanted to do something about it, to become active, so she turned to the Local Advisory Council, “the smallest cell in the large organism of democracy”, as she describes it. No one is closer to people’s worries, wishes and problems. This elected body deals with all the issues that concern the inhabitants of the city district: traffic lights, street names, nurseries, parks – and, of course, schools. The Local Advisory Council has its own budget and can submit major enquiries to the municipal administration of the City of Frankfurt. As a result, it is in effect a parliament for the immediate area in which people live, far removed from national politics in Berlin. “I was lucky,” says Friedrich. “The Local Advisory Council supported and passed on our issue – and the city responded.” It opened Frankfurt’s first new high school in 100 years much earlier than planned, even if it was in a temporary container-based structure. Today, the bilingual high school is considered Frankfurt’s most ambitious school development project.
To me, democracy means I can make a contribution and help shape my neighbourhood – even if staying power is sometimes required in the Local Advisory Council
Carolin Friedrich stood as a candidate for the Local Advisory Council in 2011 because she wanted “to give something back”, and she has been its Chair since 2012. “It’s actually rather unusual for people to go into politics because of a single issue and then stay involved,” explains Friedrich. That’s because this kind of voluntary work is time-consuming and the outcomes are not always as successful as in the case of Riedberg High School. “But it’s worthwhile,” says Friedrich. “Contributing to decision-making is the core of democracy.” Thousands of people in Germany like Carolin Friedrich actively support democracy – in associations, in campaigns and in bodies that represent citizens at different levels. That’s a good omen in the jubilee year of the Basic Law. “The Federal Republic of Germany is a democratic and social federal state,” proclaims Article 20. And: “All state authority is derived from the people.” However, this also means that democracy is only as strong as the people who stand up for it.
“To me, democracy means I can make a contribution and help shape my neighbourhood – even if staying power is sometimes required in the Local Advisory Council,” says Carolin Friedrich. The 51-year-old has been Chair of the Local Advisory Council for the Frankfurt districts of Riedberg and Kalbach since 2011. The Basic Law guarantees all municipalities in Germany the right to self-government. The Local Advisory Council is the lowest level in this system, representing local people’s interests to city authorities. In some states, including Hesse, the Local Advisory Council has its own budget for smaller projects.
One woman who has campaigned for more democracy in Germany for decades is Claudine Nierth from Hamburg. At the age of 16 the artist stood in a chain of people somewhere between Ulm and Stuttgart – in protest against the stationing of US nuclear missiles in the Swabian Jura during the phase of rearmament in the 1980s. The chain was a total of 108 kilometres long – with one person standing next to another, all hand in hand. A helicopter flew along its course, and suddenly a voice boomed from the loudspeakers: “The chain is now completely linked.” At precisely this moment, Claudine Nierth thought to herself: “If
I let go now, there’ll be a gap.” She says: “It was then that I realised I’m also an important member of society, someone who makes a difference.” That moment was to influence her whole life. Nierth has campaigned for active and direct democracy in Germany ever since.
If you ask people what they think, they won’t turn their backs on you
Voting every four years is too little for the 52-year-old artist, “a real non-challenge”, she says. Since 1998, Nierth has been Chair of an association called Mehr Demokratie. It is campaigning for referendums and direct public participation at the national level. In May 2018, Claudine Nierth received the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon for her efforts. As a private individual, admits Nierth, she also has her selfish side. She enjoys consumption, likes travelling the world. “But I’m also a citizen. And as a citizen I’m prepared to take responsibility for the whole,” she explains. It is then not only about her, but about the good of the community; when we make sacrifices together, it is easier to do without. She wishes for as many democratic moments as possible.
That is also exactly what the Citizens Assembly for Democracy aims to realise. It is a unique pilot project in Germany that is based on an Irish model. The project was initiated by the Mehr Demokratie association with the Schöpflin Foundation in 2019 and is being implemented by the nexus and IFOK institutes. It involves 160 citizens who are chosen by lot and then invited to participate. The assembly is meant to represent a cross-section of the population, people with different opinions and values – a mini-Germany as it were. Together they are to discuss, deliberate and draft policy recommendations. Nierth is convinced that the more that people become involved, the less likely they are to turn away from politics.
“If you ask people what they think, they won’t turn their backs on you,” believes Claudine Nierth. That’s why the 52-year-old leader of an association called Mehr Demokratie campaigns for more civic engagement in Germany – above all, at the national level. That is where citizens are currently unable to initiate a referendum. In all 16 German states, however, they can trigger ballots on state issues. Furthermore, according to Article 17 of the Basic Law, every person has the fundamental democratic right to submit petitions at federal level. State constitutions also grant the right of petition.
This statement does not only apply to politics: “It’s also important in businesses that employees are heard and allowed to contribute,” says Habtom Zemicael. He has been standing up for his colleagues’ rights for almost half his life. The 55-year-old is a member of the Works Council at Siemens AG, one of Germany’s largest and highest-turnover companies. That is why he has been released from his actual work as an engineering technician for the last ten years. “My father’s commitment set me an example during my childhood in Eritrea. He was a self-declared trade unionist. Workers were not officially
allowed to organise, but he brought people together despite that and fought for their rights.”
In Germany, the workers in a private business with at least five employees have a basic right to elect a works council. The members of these councils represent the employees vis-à-vis the employer, monitor whether the employer complies with regional collective agreements and local shop agreements, and have codetermination rights with regard to working times and entitlement to rest periods and leave. “Works councils are important democratic bodies,” says Habtom Zemicael. He is a democrat through and through – outside work he is active in SV Eritrea, a local Frankfurt football club, and on the administrative board of his retirement pension plan. “Democracy is essential and indispensable in every area of our society. It is the only way we can live together in peace.” He says that he experienced as a child what it is like to live without democracy, which is why he very consciously lives by it now.
Democracy is the only way to live together in peace
Such a conscious desire to fill democracy with life is also supported by the German state. Since 2015, the Federal Government has been sponsoring civic engagement through its Live Democracy! programme, which received over 100 million euros in funding in 2019. Organisations can apply for support in promoting democracy and diversity in a sustainable way, and so far over 1,000 project ideas have been submitted. In addition to financial support, the programme of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth offers swift guidance in the form of a so-called engagement check. The opportunities for participation are wide ranging. Where can you get involved? At home? Outdoors? Or at university? Regularly or just now and again? Alone or in a team? The programme indicates the different possibilities.
“Democracy is the only way to live together in peace,” believes Habtom Zemicael. He has been a member of the Works Council at Siemens AG for 25 years. The Works Constitution Act governs employees’ right to codetermination in Germany. It stipulates that a Works Council must be elected every four years and that the number of members depends on the size of the enterprise. A special rule applies in Germany: if a public company employs over 500 people, one third of the seats on its Supervisory Board must be occupied by employees. Equal representation is mandatory when a company has over 2,000 employees.
Tom Sohl, an 18-year-old school student from Kassel, found his area of interest long again. He was only in elementary school when he got involved in making sure students were consulted and heard. First he was class representative and then school representative. Then, in June 2019, he became School Student Representative for the State of Hesse. The final-year student is active in the State School Student Council and was Chair of the Specialist Committee for Course Content in Hesse. His diary is full, much fuller than the diaries of his fellow students: he visits the State Parliament almost every week to talk to politicians and members of staff at the Ministry of Education. “School is the first place where we actively experience democracy, where we develop a democratic consciousness. It is where the course is set for a functioning society,” says Sohl. He has ambitious plans for his term of office.
The sooner we are asked our views, the better. We should be taught democracy in school early on so that we can prevent antidemocratic thinking later in our society
He wants to change the nature of the School Conference, the highest body in every school, in Hesse. Half of its members are teachers; the other half is divided between students and parent representatives. The school management also has a vote. “The school principal often supports the teachers. As a result, even when all the parents and students agree on an issue, the teachers and the school management can always outvote us. I think that’s unfair.” Sohl would like an equal distribution of votes. “We must achieve more compromises; after all, it affects us students most of all. It’s important that people listen to us and take us seriously.”
“The sooner we are asked our views, the better. We should be taught democracy in school early on so that we can prevent antidemocratic thinking later in our society,” believes Tom Sohl. The 18-year-old is the School Student Representative in the State of Hesse. There are state school student representatives in all of Germany’s 16 states. They represent the interests of students to the respective ministry of education and to the political parties in state parliaments. They also meet regularly for the Federal School Student Conference, where they discuss education policy issues of supraregional relevance.
Gabriele Wenner also believes that everyone’s voice should be heard and that this is a core element of democracy. The Director of the Department of Women’s Affairs in Frankfurt relies on networking, not only locally, but also at the international level. She is a member of the Gender Expert Group of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions and contributed to the European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life. She believes Germany can learn a lot about the advancement of women and gender equality from the Scandinavian countries. “Because,” explains Wenner, “the Basic Law says that women and men are equal and the state must uphold equality.”
For me, democracy means that every voice is heard and taken into account
In 2019, it is precisely 100 years since women in Germany were allowed to vote and stand as candidates in elections for the first time in history. It was a milestone that was to be followed by many others. For years now, more young women than men have taken the Abitur examination at school, the qualification that entitles holders to enter university. The fact that women work is now also taken for granted. And yet, Gabriele Wenner, who normally enjoys laughing out loud and can fill others with enthusiasm, almost gets angry when she talks about the issues she deals with in her day-to-day work. “Women still do most of the effort when it comes to nursing care and childcare, they are still more badly paid than men and they are more often affected by poverty.” Her office works to ensure that women and girls have exactly the same employment and promotion opportunities as men, that more women can play a role in decision-making in business, administration and politics and that women and girls can move around without fear. “We’ve already achieved a great deal,” says Gabriele Wenner. “But we must not rest on our laurels.” Otherwise Germany runs the risk of falling behind in some areas of self-determination compared with what has already been accomplished in other countries. “We must continue to work every day, and with constantly changing means, to ensure that everyone here in our country really has the same opportunities, rights and possibilities.”
“For me, democracy means that every voice is heard and taken into account,” says Gabriele Wenner. The 55-year-old Director of the Department of Women’s Affairs in the City of Frankfurt am Main works to ensure that women and men have the same opportunities. “Equal rights don’t mean that the state offers everyone the same. Instead, different needs should be recognised and targeted measures taken.” The first Department for Women’s Affairs was established in Cologne in 1982; today, there are similar departments in all larger cities. Equal opportunity officers pursue issues at the state and federal levels.
The right to codetermination and civic engagement are also cornerstones of democracy for Andrea Stäritz. “People in other countries should also be able to participate and contribute in the same way that I do here. That’s why I got involved as an election observer,” says the journalist from Berlin. Once or twice a year, working on behalf of the European Union or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Stäritz literally stands next the ballot box and notes whether voters were able to cast their vote without outside influence, whether human rights and electoral laws were respected. “It’s my contribution to democratisation and peacekeeping,” she says.
Elections are a human right
Stäritz recently returned from Tunisia, where she monitored the presidential election and observed polling stations in the port city of Sfax in October 2019. “It was an exciting election,” she says, “in a country that is divided by its search for the right direction to take.” Although initially reticent, young voters ultimately tipped the scales and decided the election by going to the ballot box. “It was a great vote for democracy,” says Stäritz.
As an election observer, she has experienced societies at important crossroads in more than a dozen countries – Nigeria in 2019, Mali and Sierra Leone in 2018 and Gabon in 2016. Since 2002, the Center for International Peace Operations, or ZIF for short, has sent over 5,000 Germans on election monitoring missions on behalf of the Federal Foreign Office. The most important thing about these election observers is that they collect information without intervening in events. The teams develop contacts with civil society organisations, media, political parties and electoral authorities and analyse the political situation, the security situation and election campaigns. “We look at different questions: ‘What state is the country in? How can we support democratisation? Are the EU or OSCE projects meaningful?’” says Stäritz. Election monitoring is not only carried out in countries moving towards democracy – the OSCE has also sent election observers to Germany and the USA. Then, among other things, they focus on equality of opportunity during the election campaign phase or on media reporting.
Although it is often assumed to be the case, election monitoring missions do not actually aim or have a mandate to legitimise results. Nevertheless, serious violations can lead to trade sanctions or even the breaking off of diplomatic relations. Stäritz draws positive energy from her efforts for democracy: “My work gives me a different kind of composure, also in relation to problems in Germany. I say to myself: democracy is fragile; laws are broken all over the world. We must face the challenges and become active in civil society. I do that.”
“Elections are a human right,” says the 61-year-old journalist Andrea Stäritz. The Berliner has observed elections around the world on behalf of the EU or the OSCE once or twice a year since 2004. She says: “I experience countries at very decisive moments during these missions. As an election observer, I can contribute to democratisation and peacekeeping with my expertise.” The fact that observers are invited is a vote of trust in international diplomacy. What is crucial, however, is how the monitoring missions’ recommendations are put into practice after the elections.
Jumas Medoff has experienced just how fragile democracy is. “Democracy is valuable – but it is not a sure-fire success. Many people take it for granted, but everyone has to make their contribution,” he says. The Chair of the Municipal Foreigners’ Representation (KAV) in Frankfurt am Main, who was born in Azerbaijan, spends lots of time persuading people from foreign communities to get involved in the city where they live. “We don’t all need to be politically active, but every few years you must go out and vote,” he explains. People from 180 nations live in Frankfurt, and more than half of all its inhabitants have what is known as a migration background. Citizens from countries outside the European Union are not allowed to vote in Germany. Their representative and champion in relations with the city authorities is the KAV: this “migrants’ parliament” can draw attention to shortcomings, draft proposals for improvements and intervene on questions that affect foreigners – whether that involves the waiting times at the Aliens Department, multilingual care workers or an appeal for better German courses.
I believe democracy means that everybody has the chance to live out their freedom
Jumas Medoff is proud of what the body with 37 elected representatives has accomplished and that it is one of the most active in Germany when it comes to suggestions, enquiries and events. And yet the 38-year-old says: “We would be glad if all the people who lived here would simply be allowed to have a direct say in local politics and the KAV would no longer be needed.” The most precious goods for Medoff are not water or oil. “Participation and human potential are our society’s most important resources. If we make use of both, we can build a good future for our country.”
“I believe democracy means that everybody has the chance to live out their freedom,” says Jumas Medoff. The Municipal Foreigners’ Representation (KAV) that Medoff chairs is the voice of all the inhabitants of Frankfurt with a migrant background. That is because only German citizens are allowed to take part in municipal, state and federal elections. An exception is made for EU citizens: they can vote at the municipal level. Over 400 municipal advisory boards represent the interests of nearly 11 million foreigners in Germany.