Germany's Turkish Minority Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils

Turkish-Germans avoid the conservative Christian Democrats. That, at least, is the traditional wisdom and, given the CDU's opposition to Turkish EU membership, hardly surprising. But reforms introduced by Chancellor Schröder's Social Democrats are none too popular either. For many in Germany's largest minority, the autumn vote is a choice between two evils.


Germany is home to millions of Turkish Germans and Turkish immigrants.

Germany is home to millions of Turkish Germans and Turkish immigrants.

Salam Ahmet," says a young, ponytailed Turk as he greets Ahmet Iyirdili in a street cafe located in Berlin's heavily Turkish Kreuzberg neighborhood. "Congratulations on your nomination as a candidate." Iyirdili graciously thanks the young man.

Kreuzberg, a quarter in the German capital which alternates between yuppie hip and economically depressed grit, is the neighborhood Iyirdili has called home for the past 25 years. Despite his long-term residency, though, he only became a German citizen two years ago. Now, though, the local chapter of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has surprisingly nominated him as a direct candidate to the lower house of the German parliament, the Bundestag.

It won't be easy. Iyirdili faces the almost insurmountable task of challenging Christian Ströbele -- a member of the Green Party and popular with both the district's haves and have nots -- as he campaigns for re-election. Nevertheless, Iyirdili is part of a small but steadily growing group of Germans of Turkish heritage who are now vying for political offices and mandates in their new homeland. Of the approximately 2.6 million Turks currently living in Germany, 600,000 have been naturalized and are entitled to vote.

Vital constituency in Germany

Ali Gülen, editor-in-chief of the European edition of Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, says that the German parliamentary elections are "very important" for his tabloid publication, the largest-circulation Turkish daily in Germany. Gülen estimates that "at least 70 percent of naturalized Germans of Turkish origin who are entitled to vote will go to the polls."

Although 600,000 votes may not seem like a lot in a voting population of about 61.5 million, it's a figure that can by no means be ignored. In September 2002, Hürriyet celebrated German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder as the "Chancellor of Kreuzberg," -- as way of emphasizing the importance of Turkish votes for Schröder's extraordinarily slim victory. This year could be a repeat. While nobody really expect Schröder to be re-elected, the Turkish vote could very well be a decisive factor in parts of Berlin, Cologne and other cities in Germany's Ruhr industrial region.

Many Turkish Germans feel repelled by the CDU's anti-immigrant stance.

Many Turkish Germans feel repelled by the CDU's anti-immigrant stance.

And it will likely be decisive in favor of Schröder's SPD; the party has traditionally been quite popular among Turks living in Germany. In what so far has been the only extensive study of political preferences among Germany's Turks, political scientist Andreas Wüst, the author of the study, concluded that 65 percent favor the SPD, 17 percent the Green Party and only nine percent the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- the party, led by Angela Merkel, which seems set to win the chancellery in the September vote.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the pro-SPD Center for Turkish Studies in the Ruhr region city of Essen, 57 percent of Turkish-German voters voted for the SPD, 18 percent for the CDU and 17 percent for the Greens in last year's European parliamentary elections.

This election behavior is also reflected in the fact that the Bundestag currently boasts one Turkish-German member each for the SPD and Green Party, but none representing the CDU or the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). Özcan Mutlu, a candidate from Kreuzberg who was voted into Berlin's state parliament in 2001 on a Green Party ticket, calls this voting behavior a "paradox." "Most Turks in Germany," says Mutlu, "are very conservative, and the CDU would seem to be their natural choice. But the CDU continues to turn them off with its anti-Turkish politics and rhetoric."

The xenophobes versus the reformers

Indeed, the conservatives' stance against Turkey joining the European Union is as politically toxic in the Turkish community as their resistance to efforts to facilitate naturalization of immigrants. The party's cause among Turkish-Germans also isn't exactly helped by the occasional xenophobic rhetoric of some Christian Democrats. A prime example is Henry Nitzsche, a CDU member of parliament from the eastern German state of Saxony, who recently said: "A Muslim would sooner allow his hand to rot away before checking the box next to the CDU on his ballot."

Nonetheless, individual CDU politicians' efforts to lure Turkish-Germans into their party have not been completely unsuccessful, especially among members of the Turkish business community. Besides, the SPD's reform policies have disillusioned and scared off many poor Turkish-Germans. Iyirdili, the candidate from Kreuzberg, knows that recent SPD-led efforts to reform the German social system have been extremely unpopular among his constituency, in which half of all Turkish immigrants are unemployed. Lale Akgün, a Turkish-German SPD member of parliament from Cologne, complains, "our social policies have not been well-received among Turkish immigrants."

To make matters worse for the SPD, Interior Minister Otto Schily is highly unpopular among a broad cross-section of Turks, who accuse him of having only slightly facilitated naturalization, while at the same time having made it far more difficult for many Turks to acquire dual citizenship.

Hakki Keskin, a Hamburg professor of political science, left the SPD after 30 years and is now campaigning in Berlin for the fledgling Left Party. "I'm not the only one who has been turned off to the SPD by its bottom-to-top redistribution, which it has disguised as reform," says Keskin, who enjoys a high profile among Turks.

Given these problems, the Social Democrats can only hope that Turkish-Germans will vote, by default, for the lesser of two evils. Seyran Ates, a Berlin attorney who recently joined the SPD, agrees with this assessment. "For Turkish-Germans," she says, "there is no alternative to the SPD."

Many Turks in Germany are politically conservative by nature.

Many Turks in Germany are politically conservative by nature.

"They will be the last ones," predicts Green Party candidate Mutlu, "to vote the current administration out of office." Mutlu, who produced Germany's first Turkish election campaign publication ten years ago, plans to take his campaign for a seat in the Bundestag to the Turkish community by asking Turks a simple question: "Do you want a pro-Turkish federal government, or do you want the CDU?" This black-and-white comparison, he says, "works even with conservative Muslims."

But culturally conservative Turkish immigrants are also suspicious of the Greens. "They are perceived as untrustworthy," says Seyran Ates, "as hippies."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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