When, in 1963, John F. Kennedy unforgettably called himself a “Berliner,” expressing America’s solidarity with the divided people of Cold War Germany, the crowd in front of the Schöneberg City Hall went ecstatic. JFK never lived in Berlin and, in fact, did not even spend a single night there on his visit – yet calling himself a Berliner was a rhetorical stroke of genius. It powerfully demonstrated how the reference to a shared identity can bring people of different backgrounds together and give them hope to overcome tremendous obstacles.

Today, Berlin is not only the largest city of reunified Germany but also home to the country’s largest immigrant community. More than 800,000 Berliners have an immigrant background − the term commonly applied to immigrants of the first, second, or even third generation. They make up one quarter of the city’s population, which is less percentage-wise than in other German cities, such as Frankfurt with 42% or Cologne with 33%, but clearly above the national average of 19.6%. Given their strong numbers, one would expect immigrants to have played a significant role in Sunday’s regional and local elections (“Kommunal- und Landtagswahlen”) in Berlin. However, several obstacles prevented strong turnout among immigrants – most of which are least attributable to the immigrants themselves.

Many Berliners of immigrant background were simply not able to participate. In Berlin, as in any other “Bundesland,” only German citizens are eligible to vote in elections on the regional or “state” level. Taking on German citizenship, however, requires giving up your original citizenship in most cases. While double citizenship may be attained under certain conditions, these conditions largely do not apply to the Turkish immigrants that constitute Germany’s (and Berlin’s) largest immigrant community. EU citizens are better off – they not only have the right to double citizenship, they may also vote on the local, but not regional, level even if they opt to live in Berlin on a French, Swedish, or Hungarian passport only . However, as of 2008, only 42% of Berliners with an immigrant background possessed a German passport – most of them were not EU citizens. In denying them the right to vote, Germany is lagging behind the Nordic countries and Ireland, which have granted local and regional voting rights to most of their legal residents, as well as the 15 EU countries that allow for all non-nationals to participate in local elections.

Based on the premise that political participation increases integration, two non-governmental organizations mounted a campaign under the name “Jede Stimme zählt” (Every vote counts) in the run-up to the Berlin elections. Efforts to raise public awareness included symbolic elections for Berliners without a German passport, conferences, and an extensive publicity campaign. The results of the symbolic elections yielded a clear preference for political parties with a strong pro-immigration and pro-integration agenda. Close to 40% cast their vote in favor of the SPD and about 25% did so for the Green Party, thus exceeding the general elections results of 28.3% and 17.6% respectively. The center-conservative CDU, which has been struggling to embrace integration policy, scored less than 8% in the symbolic elections as opposed to 23.4% in the general elections.

However, even the political parties that are typically viewed as decidedly pro-integration did not especially cater their campaigns to the more than 400,000 Berliners who have an immigrant background and a German passport. One notable exception was electoral district no. 3 in the multi-cultural neighborhood of Kreuzberg − long known for its strong liberal-progressive political leanings and home to a large number of immigrants, primarily from Turkey. For the first time in German history, all major parties (with the exception of the FDP, which, however, transformed into a minor party in these elections by missing the 5% barrier to enter parliament) campaigned with candidates of Turkish origin. Even the CDU nominated a Turkish-German businessman in an attempt to appeal to the immigrant vote, which makes up one quarter of the district’s constituency. However, this district remains the exception even within Kreuzberg – which itself gained nationwide recognition as a political outlier in electing the first and only candidate of the Green party directly to the Bundestag (rather than through a party list). Following this preference in federal elections, the candidate of the Green Party prevailed in Sunday’s elections in the aforementioned district.

The failure of the established political parties to credibly address the concerns of many immigrants was also demonstrated by the emergence of one of the first political parties run by and for immigrants to ever participate in elections in Germany. Founded in 2010, the Bündnis für Innovation und Gerechtigkeit (Coalition for Innovation and Justice, short: BIG), campaigned with the slogan “No to Sarrazin!” – targeting the former Berlin minister of finance, who a year ago sparked a heated debate by blaming Muslim immigrants for Germany’s socio-economic problems. This new party reached only 0.5% of all cast votes, but pledged to expand its base by the next federal elections in 2013.

According to its website, BIG was founded out of disappointment with the established political parties, saying they failed to adapt to the reality of a rapidly changing society. The SPD, which is traditionally a favorite among people of immigrant background − as shown by the symbolic elections conducted by “Jede Stimme zählt” and confirmed by a survey from the magazine “Migazin”, which focuses on issues of immigration and integration − has suffered from the Sarrazin debate – even more so after deciding not to expel the controversial author from its ranks.

Finally, many naturalized voters with an immigrant background likely felt they were not represented, either by the established parties or by those carrying a distinct immigrant label. Some might not connect with BIG, whose voter base is primarily Muslim, due to a different or a lack of faith; others may struggle with reconciling their belief in social conservative values with the perceived skeptical attitude towards immigration by what would be their natural political choice: the conservative parties.

Many Berliners of immigrant background may also simply not be interested in issues commonly believed to be of particular interest to immigrants, such as integration policy. Maybe for them, what mattered most were the issues which dominated the Berlin campaign – jobs, rising rents, and the recent chain of car-burning incidents. For them, “Ich bin ein Berliner” might actually mean that they feel integrated to a point where integration loses importance as a political issue – thus proving the validity of integration efforts. Their turnout could then be improved by strong political agendas addressing their concerns.

Looking at the recent Berlin elections, one strategy thus emerges as most crucial in mobilizing immigrant voters. Political parties should first and foremost focus on promoting political participation – both of nationals and non-nationals. They should do so by enhancing voting rights and by actively embracing immigration as an inherent part of contemporary German national identity. The Berlin public would be with them – more than forty years after JFK’s famous Berlin speech, Berliners decided against being divided again by preventing the three extremist right-wing parties (NPD, Die Freiheit, and Pro Deutschland) from entering parliament and, thus, from further spreading their anti-immigration sentiment.