In Bed with the Far Right in Thuringia: A Watershed Moment for Muslim CDU supporters?

© Morris Mac Matzen, AFP

On 5 February, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) candidate, Thomas Kemmerich, was officially appointed to the position of Thuringia’s Minister-President, relying on the votes of both the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the populist far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. The latter congratulated itself for being at the bottom of concessions made by the political enemy, i.e. the liberal democratic establishment, whom the party blamed for causing Germany’s most existential threat—an alleged Muslim invasion. Liberal forces across the political spectrum warned about the breaking of a well-established taboo in German politics, namely, the rejection of formal or informal cooperation with the far right. With the breaking of this taboo, tensions between liberals and conservative hardliners in the German Union parties surfaced. How do Muslim supporters of the CDU receive news of this watershed moment in German politics?

Upturn of Muslim supporters of the CDU

Polls show that the CDU and its sister party, the CSU (Christian Social Union), hereafter the Union parties, have increasingly attracted Turkish voters in recent years. This Muslim immigrant group, which is disproportionally composed of workers, has dissipated its strong ties with the Social Democratic Party, in accordance with general fragmentation of political preferences. Turkish-German’s support for the Social Democratic party dipped considerably from 70% to 37% between 2016 and 2018. In contrast, the Union parties celebrated a heyday in 2018: the numbers rose significantly from 6% in 2016 to 33% in 2018 – a development which showed the loosening of strong party bonds with the Social Democratic party and gained wide coverage in the German media.

Attempts to institutionalize Turkish and Muslim mobilisation within the CDU at the national level first emerged in the mid-1990s. On 22 March 1996, an initiative by 80 CDU members sought to establish the Deutsch-Türkische Union (DTU, or German-Turkish Union) within the institutional body of the CDU party as a sub-organisation, like the Frauen-Union (Women-Union); a sub-organisation status comes with a bigger say in internal party dynamics. The hoped-for sub-organisation status was denied to the DTU, under the apprehension that dozens of ethnic minorities would flood the party and thus alienate traditional (read: native) voters. Party leaders claimed to support the German-Turkish initiative, though only as an independent organisation.

Although the inauguration of the German Islam Conference (Deutsche Islamkonferenz) in 2006 was initiated under the leadership of one of the CDU’s rainmakers, Wolfgang Schäuble, later advances to institutionalize Muslims—such as  Muslime in der Union (Muslims in the Union) and the 2014 transition from DTU to Union der Vielfalt (Union of Diversity) in North Rhine-Westphalia to include other immigrant minorities—shared the same fate as the DTU in 1996: the Turkish/Muslim initiatives were accommodated less weightily than expected by their initiators.

In 2018, Ralph Brinkhaus, Chairman of the ruling CDU/CSU group in the Bundestag, prominently brought up the issue of Muslim German political leaders: he stated that he could well imagine a Muslim German Chancellor in 2030. His initiative exposed deep divides between liberal-inclusionary and restrictive-exclusionary positions still oscillating within the party. For instance, in Bavaria, where the CSU party runs for office in the name of both Union parties, a Muslim nominee for the Mayor’s office, Şener Şahin, was persuaded to withdraw his candidacy following pressure from the party base (after he had been nominated by the party earlier). In January 2020, the heated debate’s thunder was stolen when the CSU nominated another Muslim candidate, Ozan Iyibaş, for the Mayor’s office in Neufahrn. It seems the issue of Muslim German politicians in, and of, Union parties will not wither anytime soon.

Serap Güler: The Muslim CDU voice in a stormy period

On 18 February 2020, the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published interviews with the CDU party’s 20 most influential female politicians. Among them is Serap Güler, a German Muslim member of the CDU Federal Board who was one of the initiators of the aforementioned transition of the DTU into the Union of Diversity in North Rhine-Westphalia. How, at a national level, has this up-and-coming Muslim CDU politician responded to the Thuringia case that unsettled the Berlin Republic?

Looking at Serap Güler’s tweets, her outright rejection of any cooperation with the far-right AfD party becomes quite obvious. According to her, cooperation with the “völkisch-nationalistic” AfD party should be out of the question for Christian Democrats, and CDU members with dissimilar perspectives should rethink their party affiliation. Further, Güler doubts that it is protest against established parties that drives those who pull the lever for the AfD, assuming that their support unfolds because of rather than despite the AfD’s racist ideology. Backed by Merkel’s plain message that failures in Thuringia are unforgivable and to be reversed, Güler’s rhetoric proves that she, as a Muslim CDU member, (still) feels at home within the CDU party under the current power dynamics.

However, the dynamics in the CDU may soon change. In 2020, the Union parties stand at another crossroads of the long process of accommodating Muslim CDU supporters. The Werteunion and the immigration hardliner Friedrich Merz are striving for power within the CDU in order to pull the party towards anti-immigration positions in the name of addressing the people’s concerns – native German people that is. Merz declared his intention to run in the April election for the party leadership, which implies a nomination for the CDU’s Chancellor candidate in the run-up to the 2021 national election. His possible victory has some potential for marking Germany’s ‘Goldwater moment’, a conservative leader who vicariously, or even explicitly promotes, (white) nativist policies and thus alienates the accommodation of Muslim/Turkish immigrant and minority actors.

Mr Ozgur Ozavatan is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate in International Doctoral Program, Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS). See his profile here.

© Ozgur Ozavatan. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).