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Turks may be the swing vote in German poll

Parties are using issues near and dear to immigrants' hearts to court Turkish Germans.

Last Modified: 18 Sep 2013 14:13
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Germany's Green Party tries to appeal to the immigrant vote by endorsing dual citizenship [Sam Bollier/Al Jazeera]

Berlin, Germany - With just a handful of days remaining before federal elections, polls show Germany's left and right-wing blocs running neck-and-neck. Though Angela Merkel is likely to remain chancellor, she may be forced to form a coalition with her centre-left rivals if they win enough votes.

Any edge matters, and some parties are in hot pursuit of Germany's Turkish voters - whose political allegiance is increasingly up for grabs, and whose size will likely grow in coming years as young Turks become eligible to vote.

The left-wing Green Party, for instance, have festooned Berlin's heavily Turkish neighbourhood of Kreuzberg with posters reading "Doppel-passt besser" - two passports are better, alluding to their plan to allow more immigrants to take on dual citizenship.

Millions of Turks first moved to West Germany in the 1960s as part of a guest-worker programme, and they're now Germany's biggest minority group. Many are not German citizens, and many more who are citizens, are still too young to vote.

Thomas Petersen of the Allensbach Institute, a polling and research group, says politicians who are not ethnic Germans "are quite accepted" in the country, noting the heads of two of Germany's five biggest parties are ethnically Turkish and Vietnamese.

Nevertheless, non-ethnic Germans are underrepresented in the country's politics: Almost 10 percent of eligible voters come from an immigrant background, but that's true of only about three percent of current MPs and four percent of candidates running in Sunday's elections.

One or the other

Like most voters, pocketbook issues tend to be Turkish Germans' biggest political concern. But some other issues are especially vexing for Turkish voters. Germany's dual citizenship policy is the most prominent one. Children born to parents from outside the European Union must decide before they reach the age of 23 whether they want to retain German citizenship or take that of their parents. With few exceptions, they can't have both.

Kemal Karaoglan, who owns a restaurant and has lived in Germany for 20 years, says his two sons recently had to make the choice between Turkish and German citizenship. Like most people in their situation, they opted to be German.

The SPD has not done a particularly good job communicating with [Turkish voters], or viewing them as anything else but a liability.

-Jonathan Laurence, professor of political science at Boston College

But being forced to decide is "not right", Karaoglan said - especially given that citizens of EU countries such as Romania and Bulgaria have little difficulty in acquiring dual citizenship.

Of Germany's major parties, only the centre-right Christian Democratic Union opposes liberalising the policy. But the CDU is the country's most powerful party with the most seats in parliament. "German citizenship is not a junk item to be hawked cheaply," proclaimed the general secretary of the party's Bavarian branch earlier this year.

'Frigid' loyalty?

That's one reason why Karaoglan prefers Germany's left-of-centre parties, which he says "support foreigners … They're for equality; against racism." His sons plan on voting for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Yet though Turkish voters have traditionally been loyal to the SPD, which pitches itself as the party of the working class, their political allegiance has splintered in recent years.

More than half of voters with a Turkish background used to back the SPD. But a survey conducted this summer found that only 43 percent would vote for them this time around. Another 22 percent support the Greens, whose chairman Cem Ozdemir was the first ethnic Turk to be elected to the Bundestag. Another 20 percent plan to vote for the CDU.

Jonathan Laurence, a professor of political science at Boston College, said the SPD has not done "­a particularly good job communicating with [Turkish voters], or viewing them as anything else but a liability".

Case in point: In 2010, prominent SPD politician Thilo Sarrazin published a book titled Germany Does Away With Itself. The controversial bestseller, which decried what he said was Muslim immigrants' failure to assimilate into German society, ignited a firestorm, with even Merkel - no fan of multiculturalism herself - weighing in against it. Yet the SPD did not expel Sarrazin from the party, as many had demanded.

Ayse Demir, the assistant chairwoman of the Turkish Community in Germany, said that "after Sarrazin and [Heinz] Buschkowsky's [comments]" - referring to the mayor of a Berlin borough with outspoken views on immigration - Turkish voters' relationship with the SPD has become more "frigid".

Young Turks

But despite this, Demir said the parties in this election cycle "have strengthened their efforts to reach the ethnic Turkish voters … Especially in a case like the current elections, which might be a close one, ethnic Turkish voters [can] influence the outcome".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel [AFP]

And the influence of non-ethnic Germans at the ballot box will likely grow in the coming years. Germany reformed its citizenship laws at the turn of the millennium, making it easier for those born in the country to non-German parents to be naturalised. In a few years, the first cohort of children born under the new code will become eligible to vote. More than three million German citizens under the age of 20 come from an immigrant background - and almost three in 10 of those under the age of five.

"From a purely rational calculation, it will be in the parties' interest to cultivate" this demographic, said Colin Brown, a doctoral candidate in political science at Harvard University who is focusing on German political parties.

Sumayya, a Berliner who declined to give her last name, is such a voter. The headscarf-clad 15-year-old is not old enough to vote yet. But when she comes of age, she plans on voting for the Greens. Her reason is simple: "They do more for Turks."

First immigrants' party

Meanwhile, a new party called the Alliance for Innovation and Justice hopes to do even more. Haluk Yildiz, the founder and chairman, says it's the first political party in Germany tailored to immigrants. About 60 percent of its members have a Turkish background, he said.

Yildiz, who lives in Bonn, noted that despite the city's large non-ethnic German population, they make up only a tiny portion of those in local government. The party, he said, "was formed out of the need to reflect and support the changes in our multicultural society in the political area".

The Alliance calls for allowing dual citizenship for all Germans, establishing anti-discrimination offices at the municipal level, and putting Germany's religious communities on an equal legal footing - unlike Christian and Jewish communities, few Muslim groups are officially recognised by the German state. On social issues, it's conservative - the party opposes same-sex marriage and teaching about homosexuality in schools.

Its success will hinge on whether it can convince voters with a Turkish background to cleave away from parties such as the SPD. In Berlin's state elections in 2011, the party put up posters mocking Thilo Sarrazin, declaring: "The SPD does away with itself."

The SPD won't do away with itself anytime soon, and unless Germany's left-of-centre parties unite - an unlikely event - Merkel will remain chancellor. But in what's shaping up to be a razor-thin race, German Turks could well have an outsized impact on which parties control the next government.

Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier

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Al Jazeera
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