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Sticky subject

May 12, 2011

Non-ethnic Germans are vastly underrepresented in politics. The Social Democrats have announced a quota to bring more minorities into party leadership. Other parties have no intention of following suit.

A ballot box
The SPD wants more minorities in party leadershipImage: dpa

The lively, working-class neighborhood of Moabit in central Berlin has seen dramatic changes in the past few decades - the fall of the Berlin Wall, an influx of government workers and increasing gentrification. The local branch of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has struggled to keep up.

"We have a population that is 60 percent immigrants here," says Thorsten Lütke, chairman of the Moabit chapter of the Social Democratic Party.

In a neighborhood where immigrants form the majority of the population, Lütke estimates that only 50 of the 250 registered members of local chapter have an migrant background. On the 20-member board of directors, the immigrant community is represented by just four people.

The view that immigrants have a place in the party, its committees and its parliaments has been slow to catch on, says Ilkin Özisik, the Social Democrat's candidate for the Berlin House of Representatives.

a diverse group of children
For many years Germans assumed "guest workers" would return home one dayImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"The parties aren't open to new people. The old ways have become ingrained; the old party members are content to be left to themselves. After the chapter meetings, they want to quickly head out to their regular table at the local pub," he said.

Many migrants who were interested in the party meeting came once and never returned, Özisik said.

Özisik himself isn't an immigrant, but his parents came from Turkey to Berlin in 1963. He says there's a special need to include those who came to Germany in the 1960s as part of the guest worker program, as well as their descendents.

The label that sticks

One in five people in Germany has a "migration background," - the term liberally applied by politicians to anyone who is not ethnically German.

This month, the SPD introduced a measure to ensure that 15 percent of the leading members at the federal level were people with a "migration background."

The characterization was broad: under the SPD's official definition, which is also the one used by the Federal Statistical Office, anyone whose parents or grandparents immigrated to Germany is technically "of a migrant background" - even if he or she was born and raised in Germany.

In the local SPD chapter in Moabit, reactions to the measure have varied. Some people say the requirement can't hurt, while others argue that a quota has nothing to do with the quality of the body. Most everyone seems to agree that the policy could act as an incentive for minorities interested in getting politically involved.

Traditionally, the Social Democrats have enjoyed a large constituency among immigrants. Particularly for guest workers arriving from Turkey in the 1960s and '70s, the SPD was the party that stood up for their rights.

However, the party is still reeling from the fallout over party member Thilo Sarrazin's recent book "Germany Does Away with Itself," which faulted Muslim immigrants for a host of societal ills.

The shadow of Cem Özdemir

Cem Özdemir
Özdemir was the first politician with Turkish roots in parliamentImage: BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN.

Those who perceive the SPD's failure to kick Sarrazin out of the party as a tacit endorsement of his views may find themselves voting for other candidates.

The co-chair of Germany's Green Party, Cem Özdemir, has Turkish roots, and is routinely held up as a model of minority political involvement. But despite having an integration poster boy at their helm, the Greens still lag behind the SPD when it comes to bringing non-ethnic Germans into the party fold. It's a problem that extends beyond party lines, says SPD chief Sigmar Gabriel.

"No party has brought well-qualified immigrants - and there are enough of them - into a sufficient number of executive positions," said Gabriel.

But not all parties are eager to follow in the SPD's footsteps by introducing a minimum requirement. The Greens and the Left Party say that even without a quota, their doors are already open to immigrants. A spokesman for the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), Serkan Tören, said the integration of their party relied not on quotas but on equal opportunities.

Tören, whose Turkish parents were once recruited as guest workers by Siemens, said a quota was the wrong approach.

"It's about acceptance within the party. And I would not have this acceptance if I had obtained my position through a quota. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to go through the same things as the others," Tören said.

Yet despite the FDP's enthusiastic touting of its recently designated party leader Philipp Rösler, who was adopted from Vietnam by German parents when he was nine months old, only one other FDP politician, Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, has a name that even suggests a "migration background."

Author: Bernd Grässler / smh
Editor: Martin Kuebler