In Germany, a breakthrough year for immigrant politicians

This weekend, more than 50 elected officials of Turkish descent meet to spur wider political participation among the country's 2.7 million Turkish residents.

By , Correspondent

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    Turgut Yüksel is a new state legislator in the Hessen. In January, he made history by becoming Hessen's first Turkish-born state legislator.
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After fleeing Turkey as a young adult, Turgut Yüksel discovered that in Germany, too, young people suffered from social injustice. So he joined the Social Democratic Party, using hip-hop and soccer to bridge ethnic divides among youths.

Aygül Özkan, whose Turkish parents worked as tailors, is helping young immigrants get a head start in business through her Forum of Turkish Entrepreneurs.

Elected this year in groundbreaking votes for Germany's substantial Turkish population, the pair represents a new, more inclusive generation of politicians in this country. Often the children of guest workers who helped rebuild postwar Germany, they are entering mainstream politics – giving a new perspective on a range of issues.

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"For almost a century, we lived side by side, yet in worlds apart," says Karl-Heinz Meier-Braun, the integration and immigration specialist for German Southwest Public Radio. "What we're seeing is Germany finally facing its role as a country of immigration."

Ten years ago, Germans with immigrant backgrounds were virtually absent from politics. Today, six sit at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, 11 in the Bundestag (parliament), 37 in state legislatures, and hundreds more on the city councils of big cities from Bremen to Stuttgart. When the Network of Elected Officials With Turkish Backgrounds meets in Stüttgart Saturday, it will celebrate history in the making – the election this year of the first Turkish-born state legislator in Hesse (Mr. Yüksel) and that of Hamburg's first Christian Democrat legislator of Turkish origins (Ms. Özkan) in a country where immigrants traditionally favor left-leaning parties.

"We're no longer talking about migrants," says Andreas Wüst of the Center for European Social Research in Mannheim, who specializes in migrants as political actors. "We're talking with them."

Until recently, guest workers and their families were largely left on the margins of society. A citizenship policy favoring ethnicity over country of birth made it difficult for Germany's 2.7 million residents of Turkish descent to become citizens, and thus vote. Today, unemployment among foreigners is still twice as high as the overall German rate of 7.8 percent, and children with immigrant backgrounds have a disproportionate school dropout rate.

In 2005, Chancellor Angela Merkel's "grand coalition" adopted the country's first immigration law, paving the way for integration measures including a federal ministry and state initiatives such as language and civic courses for adults and preschoolers. This year, Ms. Merkel convened the third annual "integration summit" and an "Islam conference," with Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaüble, who said that Islam is a part of German society.

"That was quite a revolutionary thing to say from a conservative man who knows that his conservative electorate won't be happy," says Mr. Meier-Braun. "But that is the reality, and at long last we are facing reality."

Özkan agrees. "Ten years ago politicians talked about whether we need integration at all," she says. "Today we're talking about how to do it."

Still, there's a long way to go. "There is a deep climate of mistrust," says Cem Özdemir, the Bundestag's first Turkish-born representative. In Stüttgart, where half the children have foreign backgrounds, only two out of 60 city councillors have Turkish roots. Nationwide, only 2 percent of parliamentarians have a migration background, compared with 5 percent in France, 4 percent in England, and 8 percent in Sweden. Yüksel says he faced resistance in seeking his party's nomination. "There were people who said, 'You're good, you're ambitious, but your name just isn't right," he says.

But gradually, "even the conservative party is starting to realize that there will be more and more people with foreign backgrounds that are potential voters, and they are trying to make programmatic change," says Mr. Wüst. Özkan, for instance, felt that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) best implemented her economic vision and saw beyond her Turkishness. "Integration is an across-the-board process," she says. "That the party saw it as no problem that I run as a woman, and a woman with a migration background – to me that was much more important than the elections themselves."

When Mr. Özdemir was elected to the Bundestag in 1994, the election of somebody like Ozkan of the CDU was unthinkable. "Today it's becoming normal for all political parties to have people with migration backgrounds," says Özdemir, now a European parliamentarian. "The legislative branch is covered now. You've got the local, regional, national parliaments covered. The next step is the executive branch – to have a member of government with roots in Turkey."

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