Election brings more lawmakers of minority, immigrant backgrounds to German parliament


German Chancellor Angela Merkel arriveS at the Parliamentary Association in Berlin on Oct. 4, 2013. Several candidates with immigrant roots won election to parliament on Merkel’s Christian Democrats ticket in elections last month. (Bernd von Jutrczenka/EPA)

After an election filled with firsts, Cemile Giousouf says there’s nothing contradictory about being a Muslim member of Parliament from a political party that has the word “Christian” in its name.

Giousouf, a member of the center-right Christian Democrats, was swept into office by an election last month that nearly doubled the number of Germany’s federal legislators with Turkish roots. Several other candidates from immigrant backgrounds were also victorious.

The new lawmakers, who include Germany’s first two members of Parliament of African descent, say that a country that has long had a troubled relationship with diversity is slowly becoming more inclusive.

The arrival of minority legislators will affect broader discussions of what it means to be German, with a debate over whether to allow dual citizenship sure to be a hot topic in coming years.

German attitudes toward nationality tend to be much more rigid than in the United States, where hyphenated, dual identities are commonplace. Many of the new lawmakers say they are living proof that Germans can hold on to their roots — and that they plan to be an example for the rest of the country.

In total, 36 of the 630 members of Parliament who will be sworn in this month have roots outside of Germany, according to the Mediendienst Integration organization, or 5.7 percent. That’s up from 3.4 percent in the previous legislature elected in 2009, although some of those cited have northern European immigrant backgrounds that made it easier for them to integrate into German society.

“We are not yet on this level, that it’s normal that Germans are black-haired or don’t look like typical Germans,” said Giousouf, 35, who was born in the western German city of Leverkusen to parents from Greece’s Turkish minority.

Giousouf said she wanted to ease restrictions on dual citizenship, which currently force Germans born with two citizenships to pick one when they turn 23. That has long been a source of alienation among people who are sometimes split between cultures but feel that broader German attitudes treat dual citizenship as a sign of disloyalty, Giousouf said.

‘Not a question of loyalty’

Children of immigrants “say okay, we’re German, but we also want to respect our parents, our roots,” she said. “It’s not a question of loyalty.”

As for being the first Muslim lawmaker from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party, Giousouf said that people with immigrant or non-Christian roots can also believe in keeping taxes low and in a role for religion within schools. Those policies are opposed by the center-left Social Democrats, who have historically captured most of Germany’s Turkish vote.

West German efforts in the 1960s and 1970s to recruit temporary “guest workers” from Turkey led to a sizable Turkish population in Germany. The government was slow to catch up to the reality that most of them were there to stay, and for decades denied citizenship to the German-born children of Turkish workers.

Citizenship laws were eased in 2000, but Germany’s 3 million residents with Turkish roots have struggled to build political clout. Still, 11 Parliament members with Turkish roots were elected last month, up from five in 2009.

Granting dual citizenship would also create a larger pool of immigrant voters, increasing their political clout. The Social Democrats may make it a key issue in ongoing coalition talks with Merkel, whose Christian Democrats officially favor the status quo.

Of Germany’s 82 million residents, one in five had a background of migration in 2011, according to the German Federal Statistics office, meaning that either they or their parents immigrated to Germany after 1949.

“We had a trend in Germany that I would call not normal — we had a growing minority population but no political representation,” said Orkan Koesemen, who studies politics and integration at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, a think tank. “The shift was not big. It was a small step to normalization.”

German political parties “have seen the signs on the wall, and they are preparing for the future,” he said. “The immigrant vote will grow more important in the next 10 to 15 years.”

Immigrant groups, experts and politicians also caution against getting too excited about the election results, noting that representation still lags far below the demographics of the country.

A shift, but not everywhere

“We’re not in the place we want to be in comparison to other countries,” said Karamba Diaby, a 51-year-old chemist who was born in Senegal and was just elected to Parliament as a Social Democrat. He is one of two Germans with African roots in Parliament for the first time. The other is Charles M. Huber, a 57-year-old actor who was born to a Senegalese father and German mother.

“It’s a positive sign, and it’s going in the right direction,” said Diaby, who immigrated to East Germany in 1985. “The more people we have with different backgrounds, the richer discussions we’ll have.”

Some skeptics point to lingering racism in the former East Germany, where members of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany hold office in state parliaments. Diaby actually lost his district election and made it into Parliament within Germany’s byzantine election system only because his party had placed him high on a roster of candidates to take office without attachment to a particular electoral district.

“My personal judgment is that there is a huge shift within the big western cities in Germany,” said Metin Hakverdi, 44, a lawyer and local Social Democratic politician from Hamburg who was elected to federal Parliament for the first time. “Outside the big cities, at this point, I don’t see any change at all.”

Hakverdi’s father emigrated from Turkey, and his mother is German. His campaign materials focus on bread-and-butter policies such as education and the economy, not on integration issues.

Nevertheless, he said, “we asked ourselves whether it was possible for someone with a Turkish last name to have the greatest number of votes. But I got elected.”

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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