Migrants feel left out of German politics

Turkish and Muslim workers see themselves 'hopelessly unrepresented' and blame Angela Merkel for doing little to improve their condition.

Three veiled women walk along a street in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg - Neukoelln on July 16, 2009. Around 120,000 Turks live currently in Berlin, which has a total population of 3.4 millions. AFP PHOTO KAVEH ROSTAMKHANI
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BERLIN // Last Sunday, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister campaigning to become chancellor in the federal election on Sunday, wooed the immigrant vote by visiting a Turkish family in Berlin to celebrate the Sugar Festival with them.

He smiled for the cameras as he handed out sweets to toddlers, savoured Turkish dishes from the richly laden dining table and spoke about how he had travelled around Turkey when he was a student. The campaign visit made it into Bild, the country's best-selling newspaper, and the intention was to assure the 5.6 million immigrants eligible to vote in Germany that Mr Steinmeier and his Social Democrat party (SPD) will look after them.

It is a message many immigrants, which include four million Muslims, most of them of Turkish origin, no longer believe. They feel let down by the government of the Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has ruled in a power-sharing coalition between her conservatives and the SPD since 2005. With the election looming, immigrant groups are complaining that they are hopelessly under-represented in parliament and that neither of the main parties has done anything to improve their position in the past four years.

Opinion polls indicate that Mrs Merkel is almost certain to remain chancellor, either in a repeat of her coalition with the SPD or with her preferred partner, the small, pro-business Free Democrat Party. "If the current government stays in power, or if Merkel forms a government with the FDP, I have no hope that there will be any improvement in integration or in education for immigrant children," said Özcan Mutlu, a Turkish-born politician campaigning for a seat in parliament for the opposition Greens party.

"Merkel has done nothing to boost spending on education despite pledging to do so two years ago. Turkish and Muslim voters in Germany have to be taken seriously. They are making up an increasing number of voters and they have special issues like unemployment, lack of participation in society and poor education. The parties must deal with these problems." The Bundestag, the lower house of parliament which will be elected on Sunday, has only 11 members with an immigrant background, of which five are of Turkish descent. That is less than two per cent of all 614 MPs, whereas 18 per cent of the population - a total of 15m people - are immigrants or born to immigrants.

In her first term, Mrs Merkel has hosted regular conferences with Muslim groups to discuss issues like headscarves and Islamophobia, but the meetings have been widely dismissed as a symbolic gesture that achieved little. Worse, OECD - the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - studies have revealed that Germany's education system is failing to provide equal opportunities for immigrant children because it is not teaching them enough German to succeed in school, let alone reach higher education.

Mrs Merkel herself irritated Muslims when she told a meeting of her Christian Democrat Union party in 2007 that mosque minarets should not be built as high as church steeples in Germany - a statement seen as pandering to the right wing of her party. Statistics indicate that there has been no improvement in the position of immigrants during Mrs Merkel's first term. They have an unemployment rate of around 20 per cent, twice as high as the rate for people of German origin.

That is partly due to poorer education but also a result of outright xenophobia - immigrants frequently claim that prospective employers throw job applications away as soon as they see a non-German name on the top. And there is overwhelming anecdotal evidence that German landlords are reluctant to rent apartments out to immigrants, often dismissively referred to as "foreigners" even if they were born in Germany.

Immigrants have formed virtual ghettos in the major cities where communities live parallel lives. The Berlin district of Kreuzberg, for example, is referred to as Little Istanbul because many of Berlin's 120,000 Turkish immigrants live there. Given that there is still such a pronounced lack of integration even half a century after the first Turks were invited as "guest workers" to make up for a shortage of home-grown manpower after the Second World War, it seems astonishing that the issue has barely featured in what has been a soporific election campaign.

The lack of attention given to immigrants, despite Mr Steinmeier's photo opportunity on Sunday, is all the more surprising in view of their potential political clout. Of the roughly 2.8m people with Turkish roots, some 600,000 are eligible to vote. A survey conducted in March by the polling institute DATA 4U showed 55.5 per cent of Germans with a Turkish background would vote for the social democrats, 10.1 per cent for the conservatives and only 0.9 per cent for the FDP.

More than 20 ethnic Turks are campaigning to become MPs but most of them are unlikely to succeed because they are too far down in the parties' lists of candidates due for a parliamentary seat under the complex proportional voting system. The chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, Kenan Kolat, recommended this month that Turkish Germans vote for immigrant candidates regardless of the parties they represent, in a bid to boost their representation in parliament. "We want to vote for people, not parties," he said.

But Mr Mutlu, the Greens politician, is against such tactical voting. "What counts is how qualified and suitable the candidate is. Immigrants shouldn't reduce themselves to their ethnic origin," he said. "We need more immigrants applying for German citizenship and more of them need to get active in all the parties so that they can bring about a change of attitudes." That will take time, said the most senior politician with an immigrant background, Cem Özdemir, the co-leader of the opposition Greens party. "We're a long way off immigrants becoming a normal part of politics," he told Spiegel news magazine recently.

Mr Özdemir, born to Turkish parents, said it should be normal for a German politician to tackle integration issues and for a Turkish-born politician to worry about fiscal policy. "But we'll need more immigrants in German politics for that to happen. We're not that far yet." dcrossland@thenational.ae