Women, immigrants on the rise in Merkel's conservative makeover

Wed Dec 5, 2012 8:17am EST

Related Topics

* Merkel seeks CDU facelift ahead of 2013 elections

* More women and immigrants in party posts

* Conservatives want to appeal to urban voters

By Stephen Brown and Noah Barkin

HANOVER, Germany, Dec 5 (Reuters) - Aygul Ozkan, the daughter of a Turkish tailor, is the new face of Germany's ruling conservatives.

Her election to the leadership board of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) represents a facelift for a party that has for decades been dominated by white, Christian, predominantly male politicians.

Ozkan, 42, minister of social affairs in Lower Saxony state, is a rising star in a party which, under Angela Merkel, is bent on rejuvenating an image that is as stodgy as the meat, noodles and potatoes served at its party congress in Hanover.

"Something is happening and it is wonderful. It is a sign of normality," Ozkan told Reuters. She is one of four young politicians with an immigrant background who were elected to the 26-seat CDU board this week.

Merkel, the 58-year-old German chancellor who will fight for a third term in an election next September, is dragging a reluctant CDU into the 21st century - and may overtake some of her traditionally more progressive rivals on the way.

Her goal is to avoid the mistakes of conservative parties outside of Germany which have lost power because they failed to mobilise women and immigrants. U.S. Republican candidate Mitt Romney's defeat to President Barack Obama last month was partly blamed on his failure to attract such voters.

Merkel has steadily filled the German leadership at federal and state level with women. Top-selling German daily Bild has even joked about "Merkel's Christian Ladies' Union".

But Ozkan and other new members of the CDU leadership like 24-year-old Younes Ouaqasse - whose parents are Moroccan - are Muslims who sometimes challenge the preconceptions of a party that still starts its congresses with a solemn church service.

Ozkan stirred controversy by suggesting crucifixes should be banned from schools. Ouaquasse takes the view that Muslim immigrants should respect the Christian religion of the majority of inhabitants of their adopted country.

FAMILY VALUES

Merkel is determined that diversity should come to the CDU without imposing the quotas favoured by the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) or the feminist Greens, whose 50:50 gender quota system means they must present two candidates for chancellor.

"Other parties have quotas, we've got cool women. The others have immigrant quotas, we've got diversity as we showed today," Ozkan said at the CDU congress that ended on Wednesday.

The SPD was once a magnet for immigrant votes because of its links to trade unions, who were often the first point of contact with German politics for "guest workers" arriving from Turkey and southern Europe.

The centre-left party has also been a strong supporter of Turkey's bid to join the European Union, while Merkel, her CDU and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are against it.

But Ouaqasse said the conservative CDU was a more natural choice for immigrants like himself "because its politics are built on religious principles and as a Muslim I like that".

"Back in Morocco or Turkey, Muslims would never vote for a party like the SPD," he told Reuters. "The SPD's values are not human but (rather) ideological."

The CDU gleefully compares its diversity record - a woman party chief returned with 98 percent of votes in Hanover, five women ministers in her cabinet and 10 women replacing men on the CDU board - with the SPD, dominated by a "troika" of middle-aged German men for the past couple of years.

Her SPD challenger Peer Steinbrueck has even said that he does not appeal to women voters because he is "too cerebral and not emotional enough".

The SPD is 10 points behind Merkel's conservatives in most opinion polls ahead of the federal elections.

Merkel's choice of new faces and a softer tone are not only aimed at undercutting the SPD, but also repairing the CDU's own failings in Germany's big cities. Only two of the country's top 20 cities remain in its hands after it lost Stuttgart to the Greens in October.

But to give itself more urban appeal, some in the party believe the CDU must also lure another minority - gays and lesbians. At the party congress, however, that appeared to be a step too far for most delegates.

Stefan Kaufmann, a member of the Bundestag (lower house) and one of few openly gay CDU politicians, said "it would be a good signal to the cities" if the CDU backed proposals to give same-sex couples the same tax perks as heterosexual couples.

"In many ways we are on a good path to modernisation, but we need to adapt some of our values and convictions," he said.

The most heated debate of a largely self-congratulatory congress saw this proposal thrown out.

Walter Arnold, from the conservative enclave of Fulda near Frankfurt, told the congress what many rank-and-file CDU members still believe: "Families, above all families with children, are one of our basic values and we have to stand by them."

FILED UNDER:
Comments (0)
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.