Germany left behind a federal election on Sept. 22. Approximately 44 million German citizens out of 62 million voters went to the ballot box, and re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel for the third time. The election was surprising to many as the Christian Democrats gained an unprecedented victory, the Greens and the Left party lost votes, and the Free Democrats failed to win seats in the Bundestag (the German Parliament) for the first time in their history. Two much more remarkable results of the 2013 German federal election, however, were the triumph of candidates with an immigration background, and the participation of Germany’s first party immigrant party, “Alliance for Innovation and Justice” (BIG) in the election.
Even though one fifth of the German population has an immigrant background, as the Migration Media Service notes, only 5.4 percent of Bundestag deputies come from immigrant families. Turks constitute the most significant ethnic community within Germany’s immigrant population. The Turkish population in Germany is 3 million, and Turks make up some 670,000 voters. Even though Turks have long been disappointed with their political representation, the 2013 election served as a historical moment as not only the Christian Democrats elected the first Muslim parliamentarian, Cemile Giousouf, who is of Turkish origin, but also the number of Bundestag deputies of Turkish origin rose from five to 11. This success came despite the hate-letters of the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany, which ordered candidates with immigrant roots to return to their homelands.
An even more interesting phenomenon regarding the recent German election was the competition of the country’s first party with an immigration background. The BIG Party’s slogan “Wir sind Deutschland” (We are Germany) clearly indicates that Turks demand that they should be seen as a genuine part of the German society. Even though the party is often referred to as an “immigrant” party, party leaders suggest that the words “participation” or “co-existence” should replace “immigrant integration.” Even though the name of the party does not include any ethnic or religious markers, and the party defines itself as a “German party with an immigration root, which aims to provide equal opportunities and fair treatment to all communities in Germany.” The majority of the party members are Turkish, and the party requests specific rights that would improve the position of Turks in Germany.
When asked why they find existing political parties insufficient, the head of the party, Haluk Yıldız, points out that all parties fail to respond to the specific needs and problems of immigrants living in Germany. The BIG Party requests, for example, access to education in mother tongue, religious education, and dual citizenship. The party’s claim-making particularly focuses on issues pertaining to younger generations coming from immigrant families in Germany. Highlighting the significance of the preservation of ethnic and cultural identity, family values, and access to equal education rights, the party presents itself as “an investment for the future in an era when the threat of assimilation is just around the corner.” While the party’s emphasis on immigrants is criticized for reinforcing the marginalization of minority groups, the party representatives argue that, to the contrary, they work towards social cohesion by putting political pressure on existing parties, and attracting attention to significant issues such as dual citizenship.
Despite launching a very limited political campaign, and lacking previous political experience, the 17,000 votes that the BIG Party won in the recent German election signals that the party might reach a larger audience in the next elections. As Germany is in the process of re-evaluating its cultural identity, and the number of young voters with an immigrant background will rise to 10 million in a decade, it is certain that the BIG Party will rekindle heated debates on integration, identity, and multiculturalism in the future.
Z. Ayça Arkılıç is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, and a visiting researcher at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB). This article first appeared in Hurriyet Daily News, a leading Turkish daily.