Germany says 'Yes We Cem' as first Turk takes charge of mainstream political party

Secular Muslim voted new leader of Green Party hints at coalition with Merkel
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The Independent Online

He has been described as "Germany's Obama", and as he campaigned to become the country's first ethnic Turk to be elected leader of a major political party, Cem Ozdemir's supporters coined the slogan "Yes We Cem!"

Whether the Obama factor helped or not, the son of a Turkish immigrant – who describes himself as a secular Muslim not averse to the odd glass of vodka – won the leadership of the country's Green Party this month, shattering a racial barrier that had held sway in post-war Germany for decades.

As Green Party leader, the last thing Mr Ozdemir, 42, appears to want to do is campaign on behalf of Germany's still disadvantaged Turks. Instead he wants to help them via osmosis. "I hope that people will notice my name and realise that someone with an ethnic Turkish background can also play a role in politics," he says.

His parents arrived in Germany's southern state of Baden-Württemberg in the early 1960s as "Gastarbeiter" or guest workers. They came at the invitation of the German government in search of well-paid jobs and although they intended to return to Turkey, like millions of others, they stayed.

Germany's 2.7 million Turks are the country's biggest ethnic minority. But decades of policy has kept many in the ghetto. Less than a quarter have German passports, and therefore, a vote.

Mr Ozdemir escaped but admits "many Turks are still in the ghetto". He grew up in a Turkish-speaking household and learnt German mostly at school. English followed, as did training as a social worker and membership of the Green Party. He gained German citizenship in 1992, and two years later became the first MP with an ethnic Turkish background.

The only blemish on his record are allegations in 2002 that he used air miles from government trips to fund private travel. They forced him to resign as an MP. He spent 2003 in America as a fellow and subsequently linked up with the Democrats and met with several members of the Obama team. In 2004 he became one of Germany's Green Party Euro MPs, attracting attention for his criticism of human rights abuses in Turkey.

Now, Mr Ozdemir is out to inject new life into a Green Party that many feel has lost its way since it was ousted from power in 2005 after seven years in a ruling coalition.

But with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative/SPD grand coalition facing a general election next year, Mr Ozdemir has already suggested a conservative-Green alliance. In the state of Hamburg, the conservatives and Greens already share power.