Letter from Berlin German Conservatives Bicker over Integration (Again)

Once again, Germany's Christian Democrats are fighting over their position on integration. It is a debate they have had many times before. And it was supposed to have been resolved.

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Hesse Governor Roland Koch has turned back the clock for his party.
REUTERS

Hesse Governor Roland Koch has turned back the clock for his party.

Germany's Christian Democrats thought they had finally figured out how to deal with the issue of integration. Just last December, the party followed the lead of its head, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and included the sentence "Germany is a country of integration" in its platform. After months of hard work by party moderates, the step was meant to put an end to years of anti-immigration rhetoric.

This week, though, it looks like the CDU is right back where it was at the beginning of the decade. Following an extraordinarily divisive re-election campaign by Hesse Governor Roland Koch -- one which several times saw him flirting with xenophobia and fears of immigration -- the CDU is once again divided. And with an open letter published by the party's centrist wing on Wednesday, the dirty laundry is hanging in public for all to see.

"The Union (the CDU plus its Bavarian sister party, the CSU) has to realize that Germany is de facto a country of immigration," the letter, published in the weekly Die Zeit, read. "Integration is so fundamental to the future of our country that it cannot be allowed to be degraded to a campaign theme." The letter, which was signed by 17 conservative politicians, went on to say: "We have to realize that violence is not a problem of ethnicity, rather it is one of education."

In a Difficult Spot

To all who have been following German politics in the last two months, the reference was clear. Roland Koch, once seen as CDU leader-in-waiting, unleashed a slough of borderline campaign invective in late December and early January, demanding action against "criminal young foreigners." The rhetoric came following a horrific attack on a German pensioner in the Munich subway perpetrated by two young men with foreign backgrounds.

But many in Germany criticized Koch for going well beyond the bounds of good taste. He said that foreigners need to learn how to live in a civilized country and that they should understand that "the slaughtering (of animals) in the kitchen ... runs counter to our principles."

The onslaught puts his party in a difficult spot. On the one hand, it was campaign season, with the CDU battling the Social Democrats in important state elections in both Hesse and in Lower Saxony. On the other, Merkel has spent a good chunk of political capital in recent years trying to improve her party's track record on integration and even held an "integration summit" with representatives of the immigrant community last summer. Koch forced his party's hand -- and most threw their support behind him.

Now, though, the cracks in the party are widening. And Koch's campaign backfired. He managed to beat the SPD candidate Andreas Ypsilanti by just one-tenth of a percentage point in the Jan. 27 vote, despite having had a double-digit lead in the polls at the beginning of the month. His result of 36.8 percent represented a loss of 12 percentage points relative to his result in the last state elections in 2002.

Party leadership is clearly trying to avoid the impression that the CDU is anything but one big happy family. Two CDU politicians who signed the letter insisted on Thursday that it was in no way intended to refer to Koch's re-election campaign. And Angela Merkel herself entered the fray on Friday.

No Willingness to Back Down

"As a large party, the CDU has different wings and they must be given room. I am convinced that, as a centrist party, we are able to do that," Merkel said in a Friday interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "Roland Koch had the complete support of the CDU and of myself as party leader during his election campaign. That includes our support for ever stronger efforts made in the arena of integration policy."

But it is difficult to make the clear split shown by the letter disappear, no matter how many denials are issued -- particularly when other members of the Christian Democrats are continuing to fire away at the weakened Koch. Many have publicly criticized the Hesse governor for "making mistakes." Potentially even more damning, those few party members who do have immigration backgrounds have not shown much of a willingness to back down.

Bülent Arslan, the head of the German-Turkish forum within the CDU, recently wrote a letter to Merkel asking: "Do we in the future want to be a party that only appeals to those of German background or do we want to make a conscious effort to include voters with immigration backgrounds?" In a conversation with SPIEGEL ONLINE this week, he said that the CDU lacks an all-encompassing strategy to deal with the issue. Arslan's counterpart in the Hesse CDU, Zafar Mese, agrees, saying "we cannot just be a party for Germans without immigration backgrounds."

Debates of the Past

Despite Merkel's stoicism, the inner-party debate unleashed by Koch is a setback for the CDU. She was the main force behind changing the party platform to reflect demographic realities and has long been intent on steering the conservatives away from the overt xenophobia it has often displayed in the past.

From a political power point of view, the calculations are clear: Germany's society is aging, and fully 38 percent of children in the country have an immigration background. But according to recent surveys, only 10 to 15 percent of Germans of Turkish descent would vote for the Christian Democrats. Such a result is especially problematic given that many of the CDU's positions on social issues are more in line with the views of Germany's immigrant community than the positions held by the center-left Social Democrats.

Now, though, the party once again seems to be fighting the fights of 2000. In that year, party big-wig Jürgen Rüttgers coined the phrase "Kinder statt Inder" ("children instead of Indians") to make it clear that he was against an SPD proposal to attract more computer specialists from India to fill vacant high-tech jobs in Germany. In the same year, another party heavyweight, Friedrich Merz, instigated a years-long discussion on "Leitkultur," or "leading culture," which made it clear that the CDU was in no way interested in multiculturalism.

Back then, Koch seemed ahead of the curve when it came to his party's stance on integration. He had just come off a successful campaign in 1999, the year he was first elected governor in Hesse. Much of his popularity had come out of a signature-gathering campaign -- criticized by many as being xenophobic -- aimed at an SPD proposal to allow immigrants to hold two passports, that of their country of origin as well as one from Germany.

This week, though, it looks like Koch may have dragged his party deep into the integration debates of its past. Whether the CDU can undo the damage he has caused remains to be seen.

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