HALLE, Germany (Reuters) - More than two decades after two far-right youths attacked him there and smashed his glasses, Karamba Diaby hopes to represent the economically ailing east German city of Halle as the first black member of Germany’s parliament.
Senegal-born Diaby often felt isolated as a student at Halle University in then-communist, and overwhelmingly white East Germany in the 1980s. Nowadays he feels very much at home but says Germany still needs to do better at integrating foreigners.
“There is definitely some catching up to do,” Diaby, a candidate for the main center-left opposition Social Democrats (SPD) in Sunday’s national election, told Reuters.
Diaby, 52, is clearly frustrated that media attention has focused on his skin color, not his politics.
“If it’s so sensational that I am running for the Bundestag (lower house), after living here for 27 years, studying here and being politically active, that’s because it has dawned on people that this hasn’t happened before,” he said.
Diaby is one of two black candidates standing for election on Sunday - the other, Charles Huber, is from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). But unlike Diaby, Huber was born in Germany, to a German mother and Senegalese father.
Of the handful of blacks prominent in German public life, most are sportsmen. Three members of the national soccer team in the last World Cup in 2010 in South Africa were black.
Few German politicians have a foreign background. Those who do typically arrived as young children, such as Economy Minister Philipp Roesler, who was born in South Vietnam and adopted as a baby by a German couple.
The Bundestag has half a dozen members from the largest ethnic minority, Turks, including Cem Oezdemir, a leading Green lawmaker. Some three million of Germany’s population of 80 million are of Turkish origin.
It is unusual for a foreign-born politician to try to build a career in the former communist East, which is home to far fewer immigrants than the wealthier west.
“I find it remarkable that Karamba Diaby is running for election in an eastern state,” Orkan Koesemen of the Bertelsmann Foundation said. “It sends a clear signal in a region where the immigrant population is still small.”
The far-right NPD party, which is opposed to immigration, holds seats in two regional parliaments in eastern Germany.
“Halle is a region with young people who have a relatively high affinity for the extreme right,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, calling Diaby’s bid to get elected “a gamble” for him and his party.
Diaby’s chances of being elected are quite good, even though the SPD is trailing Merkel’s CDU in national polls, because he is third on his party’s regional list and is also a constituency candidate, meaning people can vote for him individually.
He began to forge closer relations with his neighbors as a PhD student in chemistry in the early 1990s, soon after German unification, when visited allotment gardens to research chemical contamination.
The locals were intrigued by this polite, German-speaking young black man collecting water and soil samples.
“It wasn’t exactly common for someone who looked like me to be out and about there and people became curious,” Diaby said.
“They asked many questions: where are you from? How long are you staying here? What are you doing? Do you have a girlfriend? Is she blonde?”
Diaby asked his own questions in return, probing the concerns of nurses, professors, handymen and chemists whose lives had changed dramatically after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and this stoked his interest in local politics.
Diaby had to give up his Senegalese passport to become a German citizen, a requirement that still rankles. Merkel’s CDU opposes double citizenship for non-EU nationals.
The SPD, which Diaby joined in 2008, is considered more welcoming to people with a foreign background than the CDU, which is conservative on immigration issues.
“Those with foreign backgrounds have typically voted for the SPD or Greens, whereas the CDU and some other parties have lagged behind,” said Neugebauer.
“That is changing now... Merkel is modernizing the CDU. If the party doesn’t change it will bring about its own demise.”
Huber, the other black candidate in Sunday’s race, told Reuters he had not felt any discrimination in the party.
“I’ve always been perceived as Bavarian within my party. I’m always Huber, not the first black guy,” he told Reuters by telephone, speaking in a thick Bavarian regional accent.
Editing by Gareth Jones and Paul Taylor