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Germany's 'Green Obama' Breaks New Ground For Minorities

Cem Ozdemir
Cem Ozdemir
On November 15, Germany's Green Party elected a new co-chairperson: Cem Ozdemir, a 42-year-old EU parliamentarian and the son of Turkish immigrants.

The Green Party, formerly part of the coalition governments with the Social Democrats (SPD) under Gerhard Schroeder and Joschka Fischer, is the smallest party represented in the German Bundestag, with 51 of the body's 612 mandates. But the Greens might nevertheless play an important coalition role after parliamentary elections next September.

In any case, Ozdemir's election to co-chair was hailed as a groundbreaking event in Turkey, where the jubilant media were quick to compare it to another election across the Atlantic: Barack Obama's victory in the U.S. presidential vote on November 4. "A Historic Day" was the headline of the popular Turkish daily "Hurriyet," and the liberal "Taraf" called Ozdemir "Germany's Green Obama." Ozdemir's own supporters had waged an Internet campaign under the slogan "Yes, We Cem," nodding to the Obama campaign's "Yes, We Can."

Ozdemir is known inside the party as a pragmatic realist rather than a strict environmentalist. The Green Party's other co-chairperson, Claudia Roth, called the election a demonstration that her party is the first to fully integrate Germany's ethnic minorities, saying that immigrants have to be better incorporated into Germany's political and social hierarchy. Some 20 percent of Germany's more than 82 million people are non-German immigrants and their descendants.

A Valid Comparison?

Ozdemir's election as the first German party chief with a Turkish background is certainly a clear sign of maturity for a country that has long refused to embrace and integrate immigrants, especially from Turkey, into mainstream society.

At the same time, however, Germany is not the United States, the Green Party is not the U.S. Democratic Party, and Ozdemir is not Barack Obama.

The result of the U.S. election, which was treated with suspicion in many countries of Europe and Asia until the final results were in, has created a global wave of optimism. It has also triggered expectations in many countries that other governments will also open up to qualified people who are working within a democratic framework but are not members of the traditional majorities that have dominated those countries' establishments for centuries.

In Turkey, for example, those applauding the election of an ethnic Turk as the head of a German party should ask themselves whether a member of one of their country's minorities -- say, a Kurd, or a non-Muslim --could ever be elected Turkish president or prime minister. After all, some 7 million to 14 million of Turkey's 70 million people are Kurds, a Sunni Muslim community with ethnic brethren in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Because of fears of separatism and the ongoing conflict with the terrorist PKK, Turkish governments have resisted EU pressure to grant more rights to the Kurds, including Kurdish-language education and local self-government.

Although the election of Obama -- whose father was an African Muslim -- was a great leap for the United States, it is by no means the end of the story. Obama himself is a Christian and has had to defend himself vigorously against innuendo that he is secretly Muslim or even Arab. It is highly doubtful that a non-Christian could be elected president of the United States in the foreseeable future.

Change takes time. The United States has moved forward toward greater tolerance. Germany's Green Party has also taken a step. Perhaps Turkey will be next. Change takes time, but it comes in the end.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.