By Joseph Nasr
BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives are likely to get a boost from an unexpected quarter at the general election in September: the German-Turkish community.
A young generation of German-Turks has become more conservative in their outlook and values than their parents and grandparents who in the 1960s were invited to Germany to fill labour shortages and traditionally backed the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).
Some 1.2 million of the three million people of Turkish heritage in Germany are believed to have German citizenship that makes them eligible to vote, and their shift to the right - confirmed by community leaders and researchers - could give Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) sister party a desperately needed nudge at the ballot box.
"I think third-generation German-Turks like myself vote for the conservatives because they are trying to address issues that concern them such as family policy and assistance for small businesses," said Rahsan Dogan, a lawyer and CDU party member in the southern city of Karlsruhe.
"The SPD hasn't grasped that young Turks care about issues that concern all Germans and this includes security and fighting crime for example, which are trademark CDU/CSU issues," she added. "The SPD is stuck in the past when labour rights were the most important issue for Turks."
A study by the Konrad Adenauer conservative think-tank published this year found that the share of German-Turks who said they would vote for Merkel's conservatives had risen from 13% in 2015 to 53% two years ago. By contrast, German-Turkish support for the SPD fell from 50% to 13% over the same period.
"First- and second-generation Turks were labourers in the coal, chemicals and automotive industries where they developed a bond with the SPD through the SPD-backed labour unions," said Viola Neu, who led the study. "Over the years, the education levels of the third generation rose and Turks today are no longer mainly employed in those sectors. So their political loyalty to the SPD has diminished."
People of Turkish heritage born and raised in Germany and who have come of age with Merkel as chancellor are leading a transformation of their community and gaining more in common with the voters who have given conservatives four successive general election wins since 2005.
Merkel's centrist path has also contributed to making the conservatives palatable to German-Turks.
Under her leadership, the conservatives implemented policies advocated by the centre-left SPD and the ecologist Greens such as a minimum wage, and in a major U-turn, liberalised Germany's nationality laws in 2014 to allow migrant children born on German soil from 2000 to hold dual citizenship.
The amendments mainly benefited the German-Turkish community, the country's largest minority group.
"At the same time, the CDU continued to focus on family, religion, support for businesses, and tough abortion laws, issues that appeal to young Turks who often are more conservative than their parents," said Sabrina J. Mayer of the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM).
"So the chance that the conservatives can win a large share of the Turkish vote is a real possibility," she added. "But the bigger story in this development is that the Turkish shift to the centre is a problem for the SPD, which is losing voters from all sides."
Both Merkel's conservatives and their SPD coalition partners are forecast to post their worst-ever election results in September, reflecting broad discontent with a sluggish vaccine rollout, a corruption scandal linked to face mask deals and growing frustration at the lack of a clear path out of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns to contain it.
BLOW FOR SPD
Losing the German-Turkish vote would compound an identity-crisis for the SPD, which has served as junior partner to Merkel's conservatives during 12 of her 16 years as chancellor and is forecast to see support fall to 17% from 20.5% in 2017.
Joachim Schulte of the Data 4U market research institute specialising in ethnic minorities said that while the number of German-Turkish voters, representing just under 2% of the 60.4-million electorate, was too small to swing the election in favour of any one party they could still "tip the scales" in certain constituencies.
The German-Turkish shift to the right would not only be painful for the SPD. It is a development that some first- and second-generation Turks, most of whom still don't have German citizenship because they refuse to give up their Turkish one as required by law, find hard to accept.
"It doesn't surprise me," said Sirri Inci of the shift to the right. He joined his father in Germany in 1970 at the age of 14 and could not finish school because his German was not good enough. "The generation of my children and grand children are totally German," added the father of three who runs a bakery in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighbourhood.
Asked if he would ever vote for the CDU, he said: "Never. To me they will always be an anti-immigrant party. As recently as the late 90s they were still talking about sending us back to Turkey. As Turks, we should only vote left."
(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)