Immigrant mayors are thinly spread in Europe 
Published: 30 December 2008 16:46 | Changed: 30 December 2008 23:44
Rotterdam's new mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, illustrates the Netherlands' forward 
position when it comes to the participation of immigrants in politics. 
By Marc Leijendekker
      Ahmed Aboutaleb, born in Morocco in 1961, will be the next mayor of 
      Photo Hollandse Hoogte  
        a.. Background - First Muslim mayor of Rotterdam will need to find 
        b.. News - Rotterdam chooses Dutch Moroccan mayor 
It is almost impossible to overestimate the symbolic value of Ahmed Aboutaleb's 
career: born in Morocco, moved to the Netherlands as an adolescent, local 
councillor in Amsterdam, junior minister and, from January 5, mayor of the 
country's second biggest city Rotterdam (population 583,000). 

For many immigrants the Aboutaleb success story must amount to a modest 'Yes we 
can'. "His position speaks to the imagination," says Andreas Wüst, political 
researcher at Mannheim University in Germany. "He has to be an example to many 
immigrants, and not just in the Netherlands." 

Aboutaleb will be the first ethnic minority mayor of a major European city, a 
position which shows the relative openness of the Netherlands' political system 
for newcomers. In Holland people with an immigrant background are better 
represented in elected political and management functions than in most other 
European states. This may be because mayors in the Netherlands are not elected 
but appointed and because of the system of proportional representation and 
party lists. 

"The smooth political emancipation of immigrants is one of the success stories 
of the Dutch political system," says Mark Bovens, professor of management at 
Utrecht University. "The social-economic integration may limp along for some 
groups, but the political integration is dynamic. Within one generation, 
immigrants and their children have penetrated all the important political 

Little representation 

Immigrant mayors are thinly spread in Europe. There are a number of mayors and 
lord mayors in Britain with an ethnic minority background but they have largely 
a ceremonial role. In Germany there is a village with an engineer from India as 
mayor. In Belgium the socialist politician Emir Kir, who is of Turkish descent, 
may become mayor of Sint-Joost-Ten-Node. But countries like Sweden and Norway, 
which have welcomed immigrants for years, have no immigrant mayors. 

France is a modest exception. Of the roughly 36,000 local councils, around ten 
have a mayor of immigrant descent. Most of these are villages of a few hundred 
souls. The most important is the left-wing politician Eddy Aït, with Berber 
parents and openly homosexual, who has been mayor of the Parisian suburb of 
Yvelines-sous-Poissy (population 14,000) since March 2008. 

"France's singular position has to do with the fact that its mayors are 
directly elected," says Laure Michon, who researches the political 
representation of immigrants at Amsterdam University. "Half of the councils 
have fewer than 3,000 inhabitants and it's easier to become mayor on the basis 
of a personal network." 

In general the Netherlands is in the vanguard of political participation by 
newcomers. Bovens says that the 12 immigrant members of parliament, 8 percent 
of the total, is "a fairly faithful reflection of the population". Most 
national parliaments in Europe lag behind. Certainly in Britain, Germany, 
France, Italy and Norway people with an immigrant background are heavily under 
represented in parliament. 

"Political participation by immigrants in Norway is a failure at a national 
level, but a success at a local level," says political scientist Tor Bjorlund. 
The electoral system plays an important role in this. Preference votes can be 
cast at a local level in Norway and this is done far more often by newcomers 
than by native Norwegians, Bjorlund says. 

Local success 

Another effect can be seen in Germany, says Edda Currle, a political scientist 
at Bamberg University. Many immigrants are not eligible to vote at local level 
because they do not have German citizenship, even though they have lived in a 
city for years. Dual nationality is forbidden and about half of the newcomers 
have chosen to keep their original nationality. "Immigrants are under 
represented at all levels - local, federal and national," Currle says. 

There is still too little systematic research into the political participation 
of immigrants in Europe. Wüst, a leader in this area, does see some general 
tendencies. Immigrants are more likely to be elected as a member of a left-wing 
party, if they stand as a candidate in an election where multiple candidates 
are being chosen and if the electorate has many other immigrants. 

Wüst: "Nearly all politicians with an immigrant background pay a great deal of 
attention to immigration affairs in the beginning. As they progress, the 
difference with other politicians gradually disappears." 


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