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Yes, We Cem

Is German Green party leader Cem Ozdemir Europe's Obama?

12:00 AM, Apr 14, 2009 • By GERALD ROBBINS
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Rare is the politician who cites Ali G to explain a touchy situation. Cem Ozdemir, co-chairperson of Germany's Green Party, was detained by security personnel upon his stateside arrival at Washington's Dulles International Airport recently. No official explanation has been given concerning Ozdemir's holdup, but the assumption can be made that a non-Germanic name on the passenger manifest raised concerns. "I was ready to joke 'is it because I'm black?' but knew it wouldn't help circumstances."

Ozdemir's lack of indignation about this incident reflects why he is being called the European Obama. His political resume is noteworthy. He was the first person of Germany's sizeable ethnic Turkish population to serve in the Bundestag from 1994-2002. Questions about mishandling travel vouchers propelled Ozdemir into a different environment, the European Parliament in Brussels. Over the past seven years he has represented the Green Party's interests there. His November 2008 appointment to lead the Greens is deemed a breakthrough in Europe's cultural politics. Despite changing demographics caused by a half century of migration, European legislatures have minimal ethnic or racial representation.

Ozdemir prefers de-emphasizing his minority background however. "I don't want to be involved in a discussion of where you came from," he stated at a recent luncheon in New York. "A message shouldn't be predetermined by whether my name is Hans, Claus or Ali." "He's a young, smart guy who won't be defined by the ethnic issue," a German political analyst observed. "If Obama symbolizes a post-racial political sensibility, then Ozdemir's is post-ethnic."

It is nevertheless a challenge transcending societal roots and legacies. Ozdemir was born forty two years ago in the southwest German province of Swabia. His parents came from Turkey in the early 1960's as gastarbeiters, "guest workers" who helped rebuild Germany after World War II. As the phrase implies, Ozdemir's parents and their fellow brethren were to temporarily stay in Germany, eventually returning home with their labor savings. Children born and raised in gastarbeiter households weren't considered German but Turkish or other migrant nationalities. Assimilation was a foreign concept.

Amid these circumstances, Ozdemir trained as a social worker. He got involved in local politics, using his first generation perspective to advocate better education for immigrant and working class families. The Greens were the most accessible party to join, less hierarchical than Germany's other political networks and therefore an easier place for advancement. Within the Green Party's infrastructure, Ozdemir is considered more of a pragmatist than ideologue. The peace and anti-nuclear tenets defining party philosophy aren't imbued in their new leaders perspective. Looking to increase electoral support, Ozdemir emphasizes "green jobs" and overhauling Germany's school system.

Studying American politics further helped formulate Ozdemir's bearings. As a 2003 Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington, his attention was focused upon racial politics and the victimization complex that often defines it. "He studied Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton's tactics and decided that wasn't for him," a person familiar with the German Marshall Fund's programs commented. "He doesn't want to be characterized as the spokesman publicizing guest worker's problems."

Although Ozdemir claims his circumstances differ from Obama, he nevertheless adopted the president's marketing methods. After deciding to run for the Green Party's leadership, Ozdemir started a Facebook group called "Yes We Cem", a takeoff on the Obama campaign's "Yes We Can" slogan. He has also written books about his outsider status that are thematically similar to "The Audacity of Hope."

Several Europundits envision Ozdemir as Germany's future prime minister. The nation's upcoming general election beclouds such conjecturing however. Formidable dilemmas exist as the Greens prepare to campaign.

The first quandary is political. Ozdemir might be prime ministerial material, but he's probably in the wrong party to achieve that office. While the Greens have polled reasonably well so far, their usual status as a likely coalition partner is being tested. There are other "minority" parties to contend with, noticeably the once-moribund Free Democrats and the insurgent neo-Communist Party of the Left. Furthermore, there's the nagging question as to what the Greens now stand for. Their environmental programs have been essentially co-opted by the "majority" Social and Christian Democrat parties. In light of the current economic and financial crises, their operational experience regarding these issues is practically nil.

The other perplexity is sociological. A recent study about integration by the Berlin-based Institute for Population and Development is causing a stir. According to the report, there's an alarming lack of assimilation among the nearly three million Turks living in Germany. Despite their fifty year, multi-generational presence, Germany's largest ethnic population is in danger of becoming a permanent underclass. Less than one-third of the Turkish German community graduate with any type of school certificate, consequently resulting in higher than normal rates of unemployment.

Governmental neglect partially explains this situation, but there's also the fact that many Turks who came to Germany as guest workers simply won't assimilate. The original belief about returning home once they've earned enough money remains unaltered. There's minimal interaction with German society, resulting in what sociologists call "self-imposed ghettos." Attempts to bridge this gap with yearly "Integration Summits" has had minimal success.

This seems a tailor-made issue for Ozdemir to focus upon. "It's time to get beyond diaspora societies", he declares. His statement is rhetorically satisfying, but thin on substance--perhaps another sign that Cem Ozdemir is Europe's Obama.

Gerald Robbins is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.