New Hanover mayor a powerful symbol for Germany’s Turkish community

Belit Onay won the Hanover mayoral election on Sunday, taking nearly 53 percent of the vote to become the first Turkish-origin German to lead a state capital and one of the country’s major cities. 

“Turkish migrants are making history now and this election is a powerful symbol for the almost 3 million people of Turkish background in Germany,” said Burak Çopur, analyst and researcher of Germany’s immigrant and Turkish communities.

Germany has the second-largest Muslim population in Western Europe after France. Among the country’s nearly 4.7 million Muslims, around 3 million are of Turkish origin, more than any country outside Turkey.

Some have angered Germans because of their support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is seen by many as increasingly authoritarian. Berlin has repeatedly barred officials from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from campaigning in Germany. 

In mid-2018, footballer Mesut Özil, who was born in Germany to a Turkish family, quit the German national team after being criticised for meeting Erdoğan. “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” he said in a statement. 

There have also been accusations of spying. Germany's Public Prosecutor General is investigating 13 Turkish imams on suspicion of spying for the Turkish state, seeking to identify supporters of the Gülen movement, which Turkey blames for a failed 2016 coup. German authorities view the Gülen movement as a civil association and its followers seeking exile in Germany have been broadly welcomed. 

Çopur said the Hanover result meant that any perceived association with Erdoğan and his government had not hurt the political potential of German Turks. 

“The message for them is ‘Yes we can’,” he said, arguing that Onay’s win could help reduce Erdoğan’s considerable influence among German Turks. “This election shows that it’s possible for people of Turkish background, and other immigrants, to achieve these goals.”

Onay, a 38-year-old lawyer with the Green Party, was born in Goslar, Germany, to Turkish parents who emigrated from Istanbul in the 1970s. He has served as a member of German parliament for Lower Saxony since 2013, and before that was a city councillor for two years. 

Onay took 52.9 percent of the vote, while Christian Democrat Union candidate Eckhard Scholz received 47.1 percent.

Hanover, which had been led by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany since 1946, is the fourth major German city to elect a Green Party mayor, underscoring the SPD’s slide as the Greens have risen. 

“Today Hannover has chosen the departure,” Onay said on Twitter. “I can promise you all that I will do my best for our city.”

Hanover is the capital and largest city in Lower Saxony. Its population of just over 500,000 makes it Germany’s 13th largest city, and its metropolitan area is home to 1.5 million people. 

Alexander Clarkson, lecturer on German and European Studies at King's College London, grew up in Hanover and pointed out that the Kurdish movement is highly influential there. He said Onay represents a particular part of the Turkish German community, those who are left-leaning, socially mobile and often sceptical of Erdoğan’s policies. 

“If you’re from this Turkish-German milieu, this is a huge deal because it’s a sign of your acceptance,” said Clarkson. “But other Turkish Germans will find this problematic because to them he’s the wrong kind of Turkish German.” 

Groups that organise Turkish events in Germany, Clarkson pointed out, tend to support Erdoğan and the AKP and to stand against Turkish-German politicians like Onay and Cem Özdemir, the former Green Party co-chair. 

Still, Onay’s victory could be a blow for Germany’s anti-immigrant movement led by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has been gaining ground in several German states since Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed a million Syrian immigrants in 2015.    

Earlier this year, Turkish state broadcaster TRT World denounced an AfD campaign poster that used a 19th century Orientalist painting of a naked white woman being inspected by Muslim-looking men wearing turbans and skull caps. "So that Europe does not become 'Eurabia’,” the caption said. “Vote for the AfD!”

“This is a real setback for the AfD, a kick in the teeth,” said Çopur, adding that immigrants still had a long way to go to achieve broader acceptance. “Structurally there is still institutional discrimination in Germany and racism in society.”

Onay’s victory shows the growing power of immigrant groups, according to Clarkson, but would not shift the fault lines in German politics, as the AfD has traditionally been weak in Hanover, where immigrants have played a key role in the region’s success since the 1970’s. 

“Diasporas are now part of the power system and the power structure, and they can use that with others to defend themselves,” said Clarkson. “But that does not mean the AfD is going to disappear. The AfD has other power bases and has a lot of support throughout the country.”