Migrant Candidates Face Racism in German Election

Migrant Candidates Face Racism in German Election

12:57 - While parties are becoming more diverse, migrants and their children find racism is still a big obstacle to political involvement

More German Turks will run for election this year than at any time in the past two decades, but candidates from Germany’s largest ethnic minority say they often face racism, underlining the difficulties the country faces in integrating its diverse migrant communities.

“I had 400 campaign posters, and I think 250 of them are already destroyed with racist slurs,” said Orkan Özdemir, a center-left candidate for the Berlin House of Representatives, which elects its members Sunday, the same day as the country’s general election.

Mr. Özdemir, 38, was born to Turkish parents in the German capital and is running as a Social Democrat. Twice, the threats against him and his family forced him to move to new homes, most recently in 2019 when he was a city councilor and his wife was pregnant with their first child.

When he started his campaign six months ago, authorities instructed Mr. Özdemir for his own safety not to disclose his campaigning locations in advance, making traditional canvassing impossible. Instead, Mr. Özdemir is going door-to-door to meet voters.

There are about three million people of Turkish descent in Germany, the largest Turkish diaspora in the world. About half are estimated to have German citizenship, allowing them to vote and run for office.

The number of German-Turkish candidates has increased over the past five federal elections, and German Turks are now running for parties of all hues. In the last federal election in 2017, 14 entered parliament, up from 11 four years earlier, according to Mediendienst Integration, which collects information on migration, integration, and asylum. They represented just under 2% of lawmakers, only slightly below the community’s share of the population.

However, analysts and community representatives say the resistance German Turks face when pursuing a political career, some sixty years after the first Turkish guest workers settled in Germany, may shows the limits of society’s ability to integrate immigrants.

This, some say, doesn’t bode well for the roughly two million migrants who have entered the country since the 2015-2016 Middle Eastern and North African refugee crisis, including just under one million Syrians. While the influx has slowed, just under 14,000 asylum applications were filed every month on average in the first half of 2021, according to the German government.

“The political integration of Syrians is a huge task that is not even seen by most political parties right now,” said Hannes Schammann, head of the Migration Policy Research Group at the University of Hildesheim. “They are completely marginalized in the political debate.”

In January, Tareq Alaows, who arrived from Syria in 2015, was picked to run for a seat in parliament for the Greens. The 32-year-old got his German citizenship just in time, but the threats he faced caused him to end his campaign in April.

“People wrote [to] me and said they are going to kill me or attacked me with racist things on social media,” Mr. Alaows said.

For months, his campaign team deleted emails and social media messages, or passed them to the German police. In March, Mr. Alaows was confronted by a man on the Berlin subway.

“This person started to shout at me and to say that I’m here to apply the Shariah law in Germany and to try to make an Islamic city,” Mr. Alaows said. “I didn’t know if the person would attack me, really like, hit me, or would just shout at me.”

Many major German parties don’t collect data on the ethnicity or origin of their candidates, though some tally the number of candidates with “a migration background,” a loosely defined term for people who have at least one non-German parent. A spokeswoman from the Free Democratic Party estimated the party was fielding six German-Turkish candidates. A Social Democratic Party spokeswoman said that her party had more than 40 local candidates with a migration background, and that migrants accounted for one-quarter of its Berlin state list of candidates.

Julia Schulte-Cloos, a social scientist at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, estimates that between 104 and 166 citizens of Turkish origin are running for parliament this year, about twice as big a share of the total as in 2005.

Almost all parties have German-Turkish candidates on their rosters, but the likelihood that they will be elected varies, she said. In Germany’s two-vote system for national elections—one vote goes to a local candidate and another to a statewide list—only candidates in safe constituencies or at the top of the list stand a good chance of making it into parliament.

“The Greens are the only party that really places these minority candidates also on the top positions,” she said, adding that the smaller Left party also had a high share of immigrant-origin candidates in top-list positions this year.

Many German-Turkish candidates say that community members are interested in active political participation, but that racism is a disincentive. Mr. Özdemir said few politicians speak out about threats “because they’re afraid that those Nazis, like, right-wing extremists will focus more on them. Or, they don’t trust the police.”

Ferat Kocak was the victim of an arson attack in 2018, after his first run for office for the Left party in a regional election. He said people set his car on fire overnight and the flames leapt to his house. He was able to wake his mother and father and get them out safely.

Mr. Kocak, who began engaging in antiracist activism as a teenager, is running again in Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood for a regional election. “If I say I will not be a candidate at this point, they win,” he said.

Mr. Özdemir has crafted campaign techniques to dispel hostility. “I made really personal videos, where I showed my house, my family, so people see that this guy is not a hard-core Islamist or whatever,” he said. “I had to prove to people that my wife and my daughter live a free life.”

Unable to hold pre-scheduled in-person events, Mr. Özdemir has so far knocked on 15,000 doors—more than half of the households in his district—during his campaign. In a departure from campaign fliers, he gives residents his mother’s recipe for kisir, a traditional Turkish bulgur salad.

“This is how I try to warm them up, to lose the fear or their prejudices against me,” he said.

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