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Helsinki Commission Advisor Observes German Elections in Berlin
Friday, September 29, 2017

By Scott Rauland,
State Department Senior Advisor

On September 24, 2017, over 50 parliamentarians and staff from 25 countries fanned out across Germany as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) team that was invited to observe German parliamentary elections.  This marked the first time that an OSCE PA Election Observation Mission (EOM) has deployed to Germany.  Although the OSCE PA does not have the resources to observe every election, the organization tries to be present in major elections that are politically important. I was pleased to represent the U.S. in that effort as the State Department’s Senior Advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

Members of the OSCE PA team were briefed by German government officials, representatives of the major political parties, political analysts, and other experts in the two days leading up to the election.  On election day, members of the OSCE PA observation mission visited over 300 polling stations in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne and Duesseldorf, just a fraction of the more than 90,000 polling stations located in Germany in 299 constituencies. 

In a press conference held on September 25, George Tsereteli, the Special Coordinator for the EOM, noted, “Germany has once again demonstrated that its commitment to democracy is undiminished. Highly competitive and well-run, these elections were an opportunity for voters to express their choice in a process that benefits from and is based on broad trust among society.”  One sign of that trust was the almost complete absence of election observers from any of the participating political parties at the 14 polling stations my team visited in Berlin – all six major parties seemed to be relatively confident that the elections were being administered fairly.

While the OSCE PA team was in Germany at the invitation of the German government, and although the public has the right to observe the voting process in Germany, my observation team was denied access to one of the polling stations we had hoped to observe.  That incident was thankfully the exception amongst the 300 polling stations visited by the OSCE PA EOM, but was a reminder that efforts to promote transparency in the conduct of elections must be ongoing, even in countries where the commitment to democratic elections is high.

With more than 4,800 candidates running, and numerous strong political parties, Germany’s 61 million voters had a wide range of options to choose from. Women represented slightly less than 30 per cent of candidates, but played a prominent role in leadership positions in parties’ campaigns.

“This was the first time we’ve deployed a full observer team to Germany, and the welcome of our mission by all German officials and political parties that we met is a positive signal that the country is ready to pay continued attention to democratic processes,” said EOM Head of Mission Isabel Santos. “Changing political cultures in many countries and new challenges such as cyber attacks mean that we must all dedicate time and effort to preserving democratic systems.”

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Cardin added, “I am deeply heartened that efforts to build this memorial, underway for over a decade, have finally been realized.” German government officials at the most senior level attended the unveiling of the genocide memorial, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Joachim Gauck, Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, Bundesrat President Horst Seehofer, and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit. Former President Richard von Weizsacker, in spite of advanced years and frail health, was also present. Federal Minister of Culture Bernd Neumann described the memorial “a pillar of German remembrance.” U.S. Ambassador to Germany Patrick Murphy and Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson represented the United States. Dr. Ethel Brooks, who has served as a public member with the U.S. Delegation to the 2011 and 2012 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings, also attended the ceremony. The memorial, designed by Israeli artist Dani Karavan, was widely hailed as a deeply moving testimony to the genocide of Romani people. Dutch Sinto survivor Zoni Weiss addressed the hundreds of people who attended the event. As a 7-year-old, Weiss narrowly avoided being placed on the Westerbork transport from the Netherlands due to the intervention of platform policeman, but watched as his immediate family was sent to Auschwitz where they perished. The unveiling ceremony was also accompanied by a week of events in Berlin focused on Romani history, culture and contemporary issues. Gert Weisskirchen, former German Member of the Budestag and former OSCE Personal Representative on Anti-Semitism, organized a round-table focused on contemporary challenges faced by Roma. In her remarks at the event, Chancellor Merkel also acknowledged the on-going struggle for human rights faced by Roma throughout Europe, saying bluntly, “let’s not beat around the bush. Sinti and Roma suffer today from discrimination and exclusion.” Romani Rose warned more pointedly, “In Germany and in Europe, there is a new and increasingly violent racism against Sinti and Roma. This racism is supported not just by far-right parties and groups; it finds more and more backing in the middle of society.” Background The Nazis targeted Roma for extermination. Persecution began in the 1920s, and included race-based denial of the right to vote, selection for forced sterilization, loss of citizenship on the basis of race, and incarceration in work or concentration camps. The most notorious sites where Roma were murdered include Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland, the Jasenovac camp in the so-called Independent State of Croatia, Romanian-occupied Transnistria, and Babi-Yar in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. In other parts of German occupied or German-allied territory, Roma were frequently killed by special SS squads or even regular army units or police, often left in mass graves. Many scholars estimate that 500,000 Roma were killed during is World War II, although scholarship on the genocide of Roma remains in its infancy and many important archives have only become available to a broader community of researchers since the fall of communism. In recent years, for example, Father Patrick Desbois has helped document the location of 800 WWII-mass graves in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including 48 mass graves of Roma. German postwar restitution legislation and its implementation effectively excluded almost all Romani survivors. Those most directly responsible for actions against Roma escaped investigation, prosecution and conviction. Several officials responsible for the deportations of Roma before and during the war continued to have responsibility for Romani affairs after the war. In 1979, the West German Federal Parliament acknowledged the Nazi persecution of Roma as being racially motivated. In 1982, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt recognized that the National Socialist persecution of Romani people constituted genocide. The first German trial decision to take legal cognizance that Roma were genocide victims during the Third Reich was handed down in 1991. In 1997, Federal President Roman Herzog opened a Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma, saying “The genocide of the Sinti and Roma was carried out from the same motive of racial hatred, with the same intent and the same desire for planned and final annihilation as that of the Jews. They were systematically murdered in whole families, from the small child to the old man, throughout the sphere of influence of the Nazis.” At the 2007 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Thommas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, observed that, “[e]ven after the [ . . . ] Nazi killing of at least half a million Roma, probably 700,000 or more, there was no genuine change of attitude among the majority population towards the Roma.”

  • Georgia’s Parliamentary Election: How free and fair has the Campaign been, and how should the U.S. Government Respond?

    Georgia’s upcoming election will be a critical moment in the country’s development of democratic governance. An energized opposition coalition has posed the first serious challenge in years to the ruling party. The opposition has accused the government of harassment and skewing the playing field, while the government has denied these allegations and charged opposition with violating campaign laws. The atmosphere of the campaign and contending claims has been unusually heated, with both sides employing lobbyists to make their case in foreign capitals, especially Washington. The focus of the hearing will be on the election’s fairness during the run-up to the vote and vote count, human rights issues connected to the election, and U.S. policy in response. The administration witness, Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Melia, has just returned from leading an interagency delegation to Georgia to assess the pre-election environment.

  • Ukraine's Upcoming Elections: A Pivotal Moment

    This hearing focused on concerns of democratic backsliding in Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych.  In particular, the witnesses and commissioners discussed their concerns with the October 2010 local elections, the March 2012 mayoral elections. The witnesses, including the representative from several different non-governmental organizations working on democratic development in Ukraine, spoke about the impact of corruption, controls over the media and harassment of NGOs on the electoral process.  Evheniya Tymoshenko, the daughter of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, also spoke about her mother’s case.

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