Europe's Obama: Please Stand Up

Article excerpt

With an uncanny similarity to President Barack Obama across the Atlantic, Cem Ozdemir won the German Green Party's election in November 2008, becoming his country's first ethnic Turk to be elected the leader of a major political party. At age 43 he is also one of the youngest political leaders in Germany. The son of Turkish guest workers who arrived in Germany in the 1960s, he quickly rose to power. Within a decade of becoming the first Turkish member of the German parliament at the age of 28, Ozdemir served as the interior policy spokesman for the Greens, a fellow for the German Marshall Fund, and an elected member of the European Parliament. In the wake of Obama's election, Ozdemir--often called "Germany's Obama"--has the potential to expand greatly the role of racial minorities in European politics, a role that is still quite small across the continent.

The comparison between Obama's and Ozdemir's victories is hard to ignore--after all, during Ozdemir's campaign, his supporters coined the term "Yes We Cem," modeled after Obama's campaign slogan, "Yes We Can." This phrase may be fitting, given their common decision not to make ethnicity a campaign issue, but a closer examination reveals a large distinction between the two. Obama allowed the historical significance of his victory to run its course and focused on the message of change. Ozdemir, however, has made the deliberate effort not to campaign on behalf of Germany's 2.7 million Turks who make up the country's biggest, yet still marginalized, ethnic minority. While acknowledging that most Turks live in ghettos and lack good education, Ozdemir has demonstrated no desire to address the specific issues of minority rights and integration policies. In fact, he laments that the very fact that his background has generated such interest shows how much progress is necessary to transcend ethnicity in politics. He has pointed fingers at both native Germans and immigrants for the tense situation, arguing that Germans must accept "hyphenated identities" of fellow citizens of foreign origin and that immigrants should cease to view Germany as "enemy territory."

Ozdemir's unwillingness to discuss ethnicity and call for a "color-blind Germany" is unfortunate for Europe. Through his refusal to speak up for more diverse political leadership in Germany, he is failing to take advantage of a unique opportunity to transform the white-male dominated political landscape. Only two lawmakers in the 612-seat Bundestag, the German parliament, can claim Turkish roots, with another eight coming from all other minority backgrounds. On the state level, all 16 premiers are white men. These numbers hardly reflect the fact that almost 20 percent of the population has some minority background.

The disappointingly minimal diversity in politics is by no means unique to Germany. Though only 15 out of 646 members of the British House of Commons are of non-Caucasian origins, ethnic minorities make up at least eight percent of Britain's population. Even worse, although 7 percent of its population is of North African descent and Islam is the second-largest and fastest-growing religion in the country, France has little ethnic diversity in politics: none of the 577 deputies in the French National Assembly, except for those from the overseas territories, represents these two groups. …