The scene is the Kronprinzenpalais garden in Berlin, host to the summer festival of the Christian Democrats (CDU). Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer is striking a traditional pose with a Bavarian beer mug, but Chancellor Angela Merkel is obviously after a different slice of the electorate: lit up by photographers’ flashes, she is cutting meat for a kebab.

It’s a clear sign of the approaching September 22 elections, when Germans go to the polls to choose the members of the new Bundestag [Parliament]. “Immigrants are becoming more and more important to the political parties,” notes Orkan Kösemen, political scientist at the Bertelsmann Foundation and author of a study on the electoral behaviour of immigrants. Already one citizen in 10 with the right to vote has origins outside Germany. No less than 5.5 million votes are at stake.

At the end of the Cold War, the political preferences of immigrants were easy to determine. Voters from a Polish or Soviet background traditionally voted for the Christian Democrats. The CDU of the time, headed by Helmut Kohl, and the Bavarian CSU under Franz Josef Strauss, symbolised anti-communism. On the other hand, the former Gastarbeiter, working-class immigrants from Turkey and Arab countries, were closer to the Social Democrats of the SPD. While these divisions persist, immigrants’ votes are being solicited more openly by the Greens, and even by the extreme post-Communist left.

Germany's self destruction

German environmentalists are today led by Cem Özdemir, son of a Circassian father and a Turkish mother from Istanbul. It is the Greens who have put forward the largest number of candidates from an immigrant background (23 persons) on their electoral lists. Environmentalists are already represented in the Bundestag by members born in Turkey, in Iran or, as in the case of Agnieszka Brugger and Jerzy Montag, in post-war Poland.

What is striking in this political landscape is hostility to foreigners from a part of the SPD electorate

What is striking in this political landscape is hostility to foreigners from a part of the SPD electorate, which is more significant than in the Christian Democrat electorate and is surpassed only by the hostility of extreme right-wing voters. The anti-immigrant facet of the Social Democrats is strongly associated with Thilo Sarrazin, former Senator of Berlin, Member of the Board of Directors of the Federal Bank and author three years ago of Germany is Doing Away with Itself, a fiery manifesto against immigration from Muslim countries.

“Without a doubt, the SPD is a party of immigrants,” argues its vice-president, Aydan Özoğuz, of Turkish background. However, during their term in office the Social Democrats have not kept their key promise to many voters of foreign origin – namely, the right to dual citizenship. Currently, children born in Germany to immigrant parents must choose between the German passport and that of the country of origin of their parents when they become of age.

Christian Democrats as Republicans

Be that as it may, the Social Democrats seem not to be suffering from the Sarrazin factor or betrayed promises and are preparing to pick up nearly two-thirds of the votes of Germans of Turkish origin. According to a survey of the Data 4U institute, only seven per cent of this electoral group is expected to vote for the CDU.

The Christian Democrats are currently leading in the polls, yet take regular drubbings in mayoralty elections in large cities. Angela Merkel has managed to break the resistance of her own party in such important issues as the swing away from nuclear energy and the abolition of compulsory military service, but remains very cautious when it comes to political measures concerning immigration. A new style of doing things – why not give it a go? – but without substantial changes to the programme.

Big split in the right

The time has come for gestures of goodwill towards immigrants

The time has come for gestures of goodwill towards immigrants. More frequently these days, Muslims are gaining access to important positions among the senior leaders of the CDU. Three years ago Aygül Özkan, born in Hamburg to Turkish parents, became minister of social affairs in the State of Lower Saxony, handling women’s issues, the family, health and integration. She became the first German politician of Turkish origin to hold a ministerial position. The media put her on their front pages as “the modern face of the CDU”. Some members of the party were irritated, however, especially when Özkan announced that she saw no place for crucifixes in public schools.

The electoral programme of the CDU clearly rejects Turkey joining the European Union. It’s also opposed to the idea of dual citizenship and to giving foreigners from outside the EU voting rights in local elections.

The electoral chances of the CDU in the Muslim community will hardly be improved by a recent article in the Der Spiegel weekly. The magazine quotes declassified notes from a 1982 conversation between Chancellor Kohl and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in which the Chancellor does not hide his desire to get rid of half of the Turks in Germany by paying those who would be willing to leave to do so.

At the time, such words were not shocking. “Today, it would be difficult to win an election by conducting a campaign against immigrants,” Orkan Kosemen believes. German society, however, is far from welcoming. Only 11 per cent of Germans would be satisfied if the future Chancellor were of foreign origin, and nearly a third of the population would be distinctly dissatisfied, according to a poll by the YouGov Institute.

This year's legislative elections will nevertheless be open in three of the 16 Länder to the Alliance for Innovation and Justice (BIG), a party founded by Muslims and intended to represent immigrants. “In 10 years we will be in the government,” claims Ismet Misirlioglu, one of its leaders. His remarks are certainly exaggerated, but the traditional parties should take them seriously. If they disappoint the immigrants, new political formations will capture this electorate sooner or later.