As Germany prepares to go to the polls on September 24th, the public debate has zoned in on questions of immigration, integration, and Islam. Consequently, German Muslims are under particular scrutiny in the run-up to an election that will most definitely hand a good number of parliamentary seats to the openly Islamophobic AfD party.
German Turks: the largest part of the Muslim voter bloc
German Turks continue to be the largest group of predominantly Muslim voters. To be sure, their share in Germany’s overall Muslim population has been falling – not least because of the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees from the war-torn Middle East.
Yet by virtue of having lived in Germany for many decades, Muslims from a Turkish background are much more likely to hold German citizenship and thus to be allowed to vote: of the three million German Turks, 1.3 million will be able to go to the ballot box in nine days’ time.1
A ‘Muslim vote’?
Scientists observing electoral behaviour of Muslims in Germany nevertheless warn of a simplistic conceptualisation of a ‘Muslim vote’. Muslims are not only in themselves a heterogeneous group; they also tend to focus on a whole set of diverse issues that other German voters are also concerned about – ranging from education and employment to security, healthcare, or taxation.2
Beyond that, many Muslim voters traditionally voice strong demands when it comes to equality of opportunity and anti-discrimination. This concern does not arise out of their Islamic religiosity per se but rather out of their experiences in the German context: recent studies have highlighted the continued impact of discriminatory practices to the disadvantage of individuals with ‘foreign-sounding’ names on the housing market,3 in job applications,4 and even when dealing with the state bureaucracy.5
Traditional affiliation with the political left
In the past, these particular concerns meant that German Turks’ political affiliations were clear: at the last elections in 2013, 64 per cent of voters with Turkish roots supported the Social Democrats (SPD). Undoubtedly, an additional factor playing in favour of the SPD was the blue-collar identity of a large share of German Turks – a socioeconomic position that many of the former Gastarbeiter have passed down to their children.
In 2013, another 24 per cent of German Turkish voters chose two other left-wing parties, with 12 percent supporting The Left – a conglomerate of political factions to the left of the SPD – and another 12 per cent coming out in favour of The Greens.6
While the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) obtained 41.5 per cent of the overall vote in 2013, only 7 per cent of German Turks put their trust in Chancellor Merkel’s party. And although Muslims have sought to organise in the CDU, the Conservatives count far fewer men and women of Muslim faith or of immigrant extraction among their representatives than other parties.
Diverging electoral preferences in Germany and in Turkey
By contrast, those members of the German Turkish community who are still eligible to vote in Turkish elections regularly deliver resounding victories to conservative and Islamically-oriented President Erdoğan – rather than to the leftist opposition.
This might be due to the fact that political and ideological preferences diverge fundamentally between those German Turks who still hold Turkish citizenship and those who have acquired a German passport.
Yet it is perhaps more likely that, in the past, German Turks were perfectly capable of balancing an emotionally-driven support for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s agenda in Turkey with a rational cost-benefit analysis of the political game in Germany.7
Ending EU accession talks with Turkey
After years of degrading relations, however, German Turks are finding this balancing act harder to accomplish. More particularly, there are indications that they are feeling less and less represented by the SPD and their traditional, leftist political home in Germany.
Although SPD Foreign Minister Gabriel sought to reassure German Turks of their continued importance to the German government and to his party, the SPD’s relationship to its formerly staunchly loyal clientele is increasingly fraught.
This trend culminated in the TV debate between incumbent chancellor Merkel and her SPD Challenger Martin Schulz on September 3rd: Schulz – somewhat surprisingly and perhaps ill-advisedly – sought to be ‘tough’ on Turkey and announced that, if elected to the Chancellery, he would immediately end EU accession talks with Turkey.8
Detachment from the SPD
Schulz’s statements may resonate with dominant public opinion in Germany, which is increasingly sceptical of Turkey and its authoritarian President. Yet his brash and somewhat populist stance may also turn out to be politically unwise: Chancellor Merkel noted that talks over EU membership could only be ended if there was agreement among the 27 member states to do so, and that they constituted an important political lever to influence developments in Turkey.9
In any case, Schulz’s outburst during the TV debate may have done considerable harm to his party’s standing among German Turks. Interviewed by news magazine Tagesschau, a Cologne resident of Turkish extraction who had previously supported the Social Democrats stated that he would not go to the polls on September 24th. Voicing his disillusionment with the SPD, who had always claimed to be the voice of German Turks, he said:
I prefer to have someone who tells me openly and honestly that he doesn’t like me – instead of someone who pretends to like me and at the end of the day does nothing that is in accordance with my wishes and interests.10
Mainstream parties “hostile to Turkey”
In this way, Schulz’s announcement, which was ostentatiously aiming to curtail President Erdoğan’s standing in Europe, may actually end up fostering the loyalty German Turks feel towards ‘their’ President.
Erdoğan himself has already called upon his countrymen in Germany not to cast a ballot in favour of parties who are “hostile to Turkey” – a list which, according to him, includes CDU, SPD, and Greens.11
The Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), an affiliate of the AK Party in Europe, has echoed this statement: in a press release, it condemned (albeit in somewhat broken English) not only the AfD for stoking populist hatred but also The Greens and The Left for supporting “known […] terrorist organizations”. This swipe aims not only at Gülenists but also the PKK, whose secularist struggle for independence is indeed seen in a positive light in some quarters.12
Pro-Erdoğan splinter parties
The political home of German Turks thus appears to be in considerable flux. As a response, a new Erdoğanist splinter party has been set up in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), home to the largest number of German Turks.
The Alliance of German Democrats (ADD) uses the portrait of President Erdoğan on its election posters calling for solidarity with the friends of Turkey. Yet the party only managed to obtain 0,1 per cent of the vote at recent state elections and thus has no political significance beyond the purely symbolic.13
Another pro-Erdoğan faction, the Union for Innovation and Justice (BIG), recently announced its decision to boycott the elections. BIG seeks to unify the German Turkish vote; a quest that has so far remained elusive: in most of its electoral attempts, the party did not manage to attain as much as one per cent of the popular vote – even in constituencies with large numbers of German Turkish voters.14
A more limited influence?
The failure of these attempts to constitute a quasi-AKP as a viable political force in Germany also points to the limitations of President Erdoğan’s appeal. Some of Germany’s largest ethnically Turkish immigrant organisations continue to be opposed to Turkey’s authoritarian turn.
The Turkish Community in Germany (TGD), as well as the Federation of Democratic Workers’ Unions (DIDF), called upon German Turks to vote in the elections and to defy President Erdoğan’s demand to reject the established political system. This statement was echoed by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), a predominantly non-Turkish Islamic umbrella association.15
Ultimately, how German Turks will decide to deal with these competing pressures will only become clear after polls close on the evening of September 24th. One respondent on the street stressed the need to retain a modicum of calm: Mustafa Karadeniz, entrepreneur from Berlin, asserted that
We should do neither Erdoğan nor German politicians the favour that the Turkish President becomes the main topic of the electoral campaign. There are really bigger Problems in Germany: the climate, the automotive industry, the old-age pension system.16