Cem Özdemir is referred to as Germany’s Obama, even if the 43-year-old Green politician modestly downplays the comparison. But the parallels are, at least in part, legitimate: Özdemir is the son of Turkish immigrants and, as newly elected co-chair of the Greens, the highest-ranking German politician with foreign-born parents.
The Özdemirs came to West Germany in the early 1960s with millions of other Turks, Greeks, Italians and Yugoslavs who provided the booming economies of Northern Europe with badly needed unskilled labor. While most of the “guest workers” returned to their homelands as planned, many others stayed on, brought their families to join them or started new ones, and haltingly put down roots. Today in Germany there are 15 million “people with migration background,” the new PC term that designates people residing in Germany as of 1950 who were born abroad, as well as their offspring. This is 19 percent of the population; in major western German cities children with migration backgrounds make up 40 percent of all elementary school students. Roughly half of these people have German citizenship (and thus are no longer de jure “foreigners,” the old, non-PC term). The largest group after ethnic Germans from Russia is the cohort with Turkish roots, the Deutschtürken, like the Özdemirs.
Cem Özdemir grew up in southwestern Germany, where he joined the Greens as a teenager–because of the party’s environmental focus, not its multicultural ethos or liberal migration stance. In 1994 he became the first German Turk to enter the Bundestag (today twelve of 612 MPs have migration backgrounds, all of them in the left-wing parties). Since then Özdemir has soared through the ranks of the little ecological party, notably as a committed pragmatist, or in Green-speak a Realo, who leans toward free-market policies and endorses Germany’s humanitarian interventions abroad.
Soft-spoken and clean-cut with thick, jet-black hair and long sideburns, Özdemir’s initial reaction to Barack Obama’s election victory was that it could serve as an inspiring model for organizing an array of marginalized groups, including migrant communities. “Obama,” says the career social worker, “reached out to and mobilized groups that had been disenfranchised from politics in the US, particularly so many young people. We have to connect with young people who have a different conception of politics. They don’t join political parties but communicate through digital political networks. We have to learn from the Obama campaign and use media like Facebook and YouTube. The Greens can do this too–especially the Greens.” He says the Greens’ coalition partners of choice, the (currently badly flagging) Social Democrats, would do well to learn a few lessons here as well, considering that they have failed so spectacularly of late–to the detriment of the “red-green” coalition option–to attract new and younger voters.