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How do Turkish Germans vote?

Christoph Ricking
August 24, 2017

Around 1.2 million people in Germany with a Turkish background are eligible to vote. Historically, most have voted for the Social Democrats. How will the diplomatic row between Ankara and Berlin affect their choice?

German and Turkish flags
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

Mustafa Baihan says the demands that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has put on Turkish-German voters are "unfortunate." The Turkish president has asked them to boycott Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens, as he claims they are enemies of Turkey. Beihan, who comes from Turkey and lives in the German city of Cologne, asks himself, "If we cannot vote for the CDU, SPD and the Greens, then who should we vote for?" The roughly 1.2 million Turkish Germans who are eligible to vote in the country's national election on September 24 are asking themselves the same question.

"We know that the Turks who live in Germany are actually more conservative," said Umut Karakas from Data4U, an opinion research institute specializing in immigrant groups. "In that respect, they should actually vote for the CDU or CSU (the CDU's Bavarian sister party) because they are conservative, but since Turks are traditionally from the working class, they more often lean towards the left. That means they vote for the Social Democrats or the Green Party."

According to a Data4U survey on Turkish German voters conducted immediately after the country's last national election four years ago, 64 percent of the respondents said they had voted for the SPD and 12 percent for the Green Party. An analysis done by the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR) on the party preferences of people with a Turkish background supported those figures.

Turkish guest workers arrive in Germany in 1961
Many Turkish people came to Germany as guest workers in the 1960sImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Hub

"People with a Turkish background still show a strong tendency to vote for the left side of the party spectrum in Germany," said the study, published in November 2016. Some 69.8 percent of respondents felt a political connection with the SPD, 13.4 percent with the Greens and only 6.1 percent with the CDU.

Increasing tensions

The fact that Turkish German voters are critical of the CDU doesn't just hinge on the "Christian" aspect of the party, but also its ideas. The CDU and the CSU, or Christian Social Union, have long been opposed to Turkey's EU accession. Their negative stance on dual citizenship and the debate on German "Leitkultur," meaning a "leading culture," puts off many people in this voter group.

Moreover, politicians with a Turkish background are more often seen in the left-leaning parties. Of the 11 Turkish German members of the Bundestag, five are SPD members. There are three Turkish German Green Party members in the Bundestag, including Greens Chairman Cem Özdemir, and two parliamentarians in the Left Party. Cemile Giousouf is the only Turkish German in the CDU, although the conservative party is by far the largest faction in parliament.

DW Interview with Cem Özdemir
As head of the Greens, Özemir is perhaps the most prominent Turkish German politicianImage: DW/R. Oberhammer

In recent years, and especially after the failed coup in Turkey in July 2016, the relationship between Ankara and Berlin has steadily deteriorated. The Bundestag's Armenian genocide resolution was perceived as a provocation by both the Turkish government and many Turkish Germans. The dismantling of the rule of law in Turkey over the past year and the constitutional referendum in April have been met with strong criticism in Germany. Erdogan's Nazi comparisons, the dispute over his AKP party's election campaign speeches in Germany, and the detention of German journalists and human rights activists in Turkey were the final straw. The Turkish president's demand to boycott the CDU, SPD and Greens is yet another low point in the relations between the two countries.

The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that part of the Turkish community in Germany lives in what can be described as a "parallel society." According to a study conducted by Data4U in October 2015, about 63 percent of Turks and people with a Turkish background in Germany predominantly - or exclusively - speak Turkish.

"Many Turks in Germany consume 100 percent Turkish media," said Data4U's Karakas. "They are less aware of what is reported and shown in the German media."

A decrease in election participation

Whether Erdogan's appeal to voters will have an impact on the Bundestag election remains to be seen. In Berlin, however, the interference is cause for concern. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on all Turkish Germans to go to the polls. And former SPD leader turned Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said he was "convinced that people will go to vote and exercise their rights."

Despite all the demands, Karakas predicts that the number Turkish Germans voters who go to the polls will decrease in the upcoming election. In 2013, the figures were slightly below the total voter turnout. The SPD has the most to lose from this development. In the long run, on the other hand, very small parties could benefit from the interests of immigrants, especially Turkish people.

"[Germany's smaller parties] are not so well known among the Turkish Germans," Karakas said. "But this does not mean that their popularity will not rise in the next few years. I can well imagine that they will mobilize more voters someday."

Dutch people vote in the Netherlands
The Turkish immigrant-dominated DENK party managed to win three seats in the Dutch ParliamentImage: picture alliance/abaca/Depo Photo

Following the Netherlands?

This scenario has already become a reality in the Netherlands. In 2015, two former Turkish-born members of parliament from the Dutch Social Democrats founded the immigrant party, DENK. In the parliamentary electionsin the spring of 2017, DENK won three seats. The party won even more votes than the Social Democrats in large cities like Rotterdam or The Hague.

DENK is controversial. The two party leaders are said to be closely linked to the AKP. They do not criticize Erdogan and Turkish government policies. When a Turkish-Dutch blogger was arrested in Turkey because of a tweet that criticized Erdogan, all the parties in the Dutch parliament stood behind a resolution calling for her immediate release. Only one party did not back this demand: DENK.