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As Germany’s Parliament Grows More Diverse, Will the Trend Spread to the Rest of Europe?

Reem Alabali-Radovan
Reem Alabali-Radovan, a 31-year-old daughter of Iraqi political refugees, was elected for the first time to Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, in September. She is part of a small but expanding group of new politicians making the federal body the most diverse — and youngest — since its inception in 1949. The question is whether the changes will set off more diversity in national governments elsewhere in Europe. SASCHA KRAUTZ

BERLIN — As the daughter of Iraqi political refugees, Reem Alabali-Radovan has always felt that she would go into politics, though she imagined herself playing a background role. That thinking changed two years ago, when a far-right extremist killed nine people with migrant backgrounds at several locations in Hanau, Germany. 

“The people he killed looked like me,” said Alabali-Radovan, 31, who was born in Moscow before immigrating with her parents to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, near the Baltic coast, in Germany at age six. “They could have easily been me or my friends or family, and it made me rethink everything about where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.”

On Sept. 26, 2021, Alabali-Radovan was elected for the first time as a member of the Bundestag for the Social Democratic Party. She joins a cadre of new politicians who are helping to make the country’s parliament this year the youngest and most diverse since its inception in 1949.

The expansion of diversity in the Bundestag is occurring as the country transitions from the nearly 16-year chancellorship of Angela Merkel and the Christian-Democratic Union party to presumably the Social Democratic Party, led by Olaf Scholz. Germany is being closely watched worldwide as to the geopolitical direction it will take as Europe’s most powerful country under its new leadership.

But it remains to be seen whether the expanding political diversity in Germany will set off a major trend elsewhere in Europe. While some countries have shown gradual increases of more diverse politicians in their federal governments, part of the challenge in assessing the overall picture is that the term “diversity” has a wide range of interpretations throughout the continent. 

“I have many identities,” Alabali-Radovan said in a phone interview in November with PassBlue. “I feel German. I feel Iraqi. I feel East German, North German. I see my time as an MP as a chance to bring all these perspectives into the political agenda and to the Bundestag.”

Ye-One Rhie, 34, also knows the feeling of having several identities. Born in Germany and the daughter of Korean immigrants, Rhie, who was also elected for the first time as an MP into the Bundestag as a Social Democrat, said she had received countless messages from people in Germany of East Asian descent expressing how meaningful it is to see her in the federal government.

“Having a visual, seeing someone who looks like you in a certain position allows you not only to dream but visualize your dreams happening,” Rhie told PassBlue. 

According to a survey done by MedienDienst Integration, at least 83 MPs in the newly elected Bundestag, or 11.3 percent, have an immigrant background. For this survey’s parameters, this means that the politician was not born in Germany or had at least one parent who has or previously had an exclusively foreign citizenship. 

That percentage of MPs with foreign backgrounds has increased for the third time in a row since Germany’s national elections in 2013 (5.9 percent) and 2017 (8 percent). Still, the new number does not represent the 26 percent of Germany’s overall population with an immigrant background. 

(By comparison, the current United States Congress is also the most diverse in its history, with about a quarter of its members, or 23 percent, of the House of Representatives and Senate consisting of racial or ethnic minorities.)

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, or IPU, the global organization of parliaments, the number of women in the new Bundestag also rose slightly, from 31 to 34 percent, moving Germany up to 42d when compared with the number of women MPs in parliaments worldwide. This is also above the global average of 25.8 percent.

Gender balance varies widely in German political parties, though, with the highest proportion of women — 59 percent — in the Greens, and the lowest — 13 percent — in the Alternative for Germany, or AfD. Newly elected politicians in the Greens this year include Germany’s first Black woman MP, the Eritrean-born Awet Tesfaiesus, and two transgender women, Tessa Ganserer and Nyke Slawik. (The IPU does not track the number of politicians with migrant backgrounds in parliaments.)

Ye-One Rhie, born in Germany to Korean immigrants, was also elected to the Bundestag this year, from the Social Democratic Party. YE-ONE RHIE/INSTAGRAM

“Something is moving, but only in slow steps,” Tannaz Falaknaz, an expert at EAF Berlin, said of Germany. EAF is a think tank founded in 1995 that aims to bring more diversity to the country’s leadership.

As for young people, the numbers in the Bundestag increased dramatically after the September federal election. Sixty-five MPs are now under 30, compared with just 3 in 2017, according to the IPU.

“What we saw in Germany with the jump of younger MPs is quite spectacular,” Mariana Mutzenberg, a program officer with the Gender Partnership Program at the IPU, said.  

“I see the increase in younger people in the Bundestag as a big chance,” Alabali-Radovan, the new MP, said. “The Bundestag is very old and doesn’t represent society in that regard. For us young people, there are a lot of topics that unite us across party lines because of age, like climate change and digitalizing the German government.”

While the developments in Germany are slow in achieving equal representation for the overall population, they show that “parties have become more aware of the issue, that they largely know that structures have to change and that they are also being monitored,” Falaknaz said.

As more immigrants and migrants from outside Europe settle throughout the continent, several other countries have also inched toward more racially and ethnically diverse governments.

France’s last national election in 2017 voted in its youngest, most diverse group of parliamentary politicians historically, with a threefold increase of those with foreign backgrounds (from 10 to 35) in the National Assembly, according to a survey conducted by France 24. Yet those politicians still made up only 6.3 percent of all the MPs. And despite France having the largest Muslim minority percentage of population in Europe, it has the least political representation for Muslims, according to research conducted from 2007 to 2018 by Şener Akturk, a professor of international relations, and a Ph.D. candidate, Yury Katliarou, both at Koc University in Istanbul.

By contrast, their research shows that Belgium, Bulgaria and the Netherlands have consistently some of the highest rate of Muslim representation in their national governments. In Belgium, for example, the Muslim population had the most representation in Europe, with 10 MPs in the parliament in 2014, fairly representing the 4 to 7 percent of Muslims in the general population.

In Britain, diversity in government has grown incrementally for decades, and since the general election in 2019, which voted in Boris Johnson as prime minister, 10 percent of the members of the House of Commons have ethnic minority backgrounds, according to the House of Commons Library

While historically European countries, particularly the Nordics, have been some of the first in the world to institute more diversity in their governments, including more women and younger politicians, Europe appears to have stagnated in achieving gender parity and proper representation of its population as a whole. 

“Twenty years ago, Europe outpaced many other regions of the world in the case of gender parity, but Europe is no longer a leader in terms of region,” Mutzenberg of the IPU said. “Many European countries broadened the scope of what diversity means in government, and that includes Germany, but none have reached parity.”

Rwanda ranks No. 1 globally for the most women in parliament, at 61 percent. Several countries in the Americas have also reached gender parity: Cuba, Nicaragua and Mexico come in No. 2, 3, and 4, respectively, for most women MPs in parliament.

While it is important to look beyond Germany to see how it compares with other countries’ political landscapes, Falaknaz said, the focus should be on the ground to “look at why we are moving so slowly, what ways are needed to anchor more diversity in the parties, and what demands should be made of the parties so that in four years we can say, ‘Goal achieved.'”

This article was updated to include information about the number of Muslims in Belgium’s parliament.

Mikaela Conley is a freelance journalist currently based in Berlin. She has worked a senior editor and producer for Yahoo News and previously as a health reporter and producer for ABCNews.com. Her work has also appeared in the BBC, The Los Angeles Times, Condé Nast Traveler and other publications. She has received numerous health-focused fellowships and is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has a B.A. in international affairs from Fairfield University in Connecticut.

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