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How far would Obama have made it in Germany?

July 30, 2009

What would have happened to Barack Obama if he had been born in Germany?

I had the chance to pose that question to a charismatic young German political leader who is sometimes likened by his supporters to the American President.

Greens party co-chairman Cem Oezdemir, the son of Turkish immigrants, became the first person from an ethnic minority elected to lead a major German party last year — a slogan at the time was “Yes, we Cem“. What might sound rather unspectacular in many industrial countries was actually an epic change in Germany, which until only a decade ago was loath to even acknowledge it was a country of “immigrants” (preferring to call its 7 million foreigners “guest workers”).

So what would have happened to Obama if he had grown up in Germany, a country of 82 million that has 15 million residents with an “immigrant background”?

“I think nowadays Obama would have had great chances for a political career in Germany and pretty much every country in the European Union,” said Oezdemir, a 43-year-old who trained as a teacher before ending up getting picked by the Greens for a seat in parliament in 1994.

Clearly, the tacit message from Oezdemir was that this would not have been the case a decade ago before the country’s archaic citizenship laws were modernised — thanks in part to the efforts of the Greens in power as junior coalition partners with the Social Democrats from 1998 to 2005 — and Germany started to treat its immigrant community as equals rather than “guests” expected to return to their country of origin at some point.

“I’m sure Obama would have ended up in the Greens party if he had grown up in Germany,” added Oezdemir. “And if he were with us here in the Greens I’d be delighted to give him my job as co-chair of the Greens.”

Despite Oezdemir’s rise to the top of the Greens, integration has long been a thorny issue in Germany. Even though there are 2.7 million Turks and 15 million people with an ethnic background, precious few have made it into high-profile jobs in politics, the media or even sport until the last 10 years. TV anchors were until recently almost always blond-haired or blue-eyed. Before the citizenship laws were modernised, the Christian Democrats that ruled for 16 years from 1982 to 1998 repeatedly denied that Germany was a country of immigrants.

As my colleague Madeline Chambers observed here in a post about a savage courtroom murder of a 31-year-old Egyptian mother, it took Chancellor Angela Merkel many days to condemn the killing perpetrated by a German of Russian origin.

Oezdemir said he has a sense that Obama’s victory last year in the United States has given integration efforts an added boost in Germany, where an overwhelming majority of the population supported the Democrat — even if, as he says, Germany has a long way to go. Oezdemir’s own election has also been welcomed across Germany.

“I think it shows there is a yearning in the public to see that people of different origins are well represented in German society — be it business, sport, media or in politics. There’s no longer the resistance there once was. But there are other examples too that show Germany is still not a colour-blind society. For that we’ve still got a long and difficult road ahead of us.”

PHOTO: Germany’s Green Party leaders Claudia Roth and Cem Oezdemir (R) attend their party convention in Berlin May 10, 2009. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

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