Cabinet appointments in Lower Saxony normally don’t receive much attention. But political success is rare for minorities in Germany, and in April, Aygül Özkan—a little-known politician of Turkish descent—was heralded as a trailblazer for becoming the state’s social-affairs minister. Her quick fall from grace shows how calcified Germany’s system remains against candidates of immigrant descent. The tide began turning against Özkan when she told a German magazine that crucifixes (and other religious symbols, such as headscarves) don’t belong in state-run schools, an opinion shared by Germany’s highest court. The statement led to a media firestorm; members of Özkan’s party—Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union—rushed to denounce the remarks. Then, in July, she caused another PR fiasco by asking journalists to sign a contract promising supportive coverage of her department’s affairs. Her appointment has since been roundly declared a flop.
The young politician has found herself ensnared in a trap that plagues many minority candidates, says Turkish-German author Mely Kiyak. In addition to letting race and religion (Özkan is Muslim) define her term, Özkan has come across as a neophyte unworthy of her promotion. “There is a cliché, and she made the cliché,” Kiyak says. But Kiyak also criticizes the CDU for hanging Özkan out to dry. Özkan’s appointment was expected to help the party reach out to Germany’s growing segment of ethnic minorities, now 18 percent of the population. Now it has cautiously pulled away its support. “No one is protecting her,” Kiyak says.
Like minority politicians elsewhere in the EU, such as France’s Rachida Dati—who weathered her own PR storms after receiving a key cabinet post—ethnic Turkish politicians in Germany are often isolated from the pack. During elections, for example, they tend to land in so-called alibi spots—on the party lists somewhere, but out of reach of a seat. Only 21 of the 612 members of the Bundestag have an immigrant background. Two years ago, when veteran pol Cem Özdemir rose to become co-chair of the German Green Party, its leadership denied him an expected Bundestag seat. Özdemir has since kept a low profile. He also keeps his Turkish heritage in the background, addressing hot-button immigration issues such as education in terms of class instead of race—a path ethnic Turkish politicians are too often forced to take.