Cem Özdemir Germany's Great Green Hope

Green Party co-chair Cem Özdemir, one of three million Germans of Turkish descent, is a rising star in German politics, and not just because of his clever positioning as an outspoken critic of his parents' homeland.
Cem Özdemir was one of the first German-Turkish politicians to enter parliament.

For his summer tour Cem Özdemir has adopted an ironic nickname – Cemtrail, a play on the conspiracy theory that aircraft disperse chemicals for nefarious purposes such as mind control.

Co-chair of Germany's Green Party, which has 10 percent of seats in the national parliament, Mr. Özdemir is used to being viewed with suspicion – not least by his own party.

A German politician of Turkish heritage, newspapers at home and abroad regularly demand that Mr. Özdemir account for what’s wrong with the country of his parents’ birth – or make the principles of democracy properly understood to the Turkish people.

But recent events have allowed Mr. Özdemir to capitalize on his perceived ability to speak for both sides – and finally find his voice in German politics.

You don’t fight Islamic State with yoga mats. Cem Özdemir, Co-chair of the Green Party

The day after an Afghan teenager attacked passengers on a train in Bavaria and four days after the Turkish coup attempt, Mr. Özdemir was asked how Chancellor Merkel’s government should respond to Turkish predident Recep Tayyip Erdoğans’ purges.

The old Mr. Özdemir would have rolled out carefully prepared platitudes. Violence is never a solution. Democracy cannot fall victim to security – that kind of thing.

But now he takes a harder tone. “I am ready to accept a period of face-saving,” he said. “But when a German politician travels abroad, our values travel with them.”

“I,” “we,” “our values.” With 35 years in politics behind him, it sounds like Cem Özdemir has arrived.

It all started with a yoga mat. Mr. Özdemir was one of the few Greens to support sending arms to the Kurdish Peshmerga, the militia that is helping to defeat Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. “You don’t fight Islamic State with yoga mats,” he said.

It was a marked change of tone – fighting talk from a former kindergarten teacher who himself practices yoga.

It was the first time Mr. Özdemir scandalized his party. But his relationship with the Greens has always been complicated. Something of an outsider, there’s always been a sense he’s had to push harder than the party favorites to get ahead.

And there was perhaps an unspoken deal. We make you chairman and you stand forever as a model of successful integration.

Mr. Özdemir is one of very few children of Turkish “guest workers” to make it into the upper reaches of the German politics. His father was a textile worker in the Black Forest in southwestern Germany. His mother worked in a paper factory and would come home with hands scored with cuts.

Mr. Özdemir excelled through hard work and an industriousness that he also applied to cultivating his image. He grew sideburns and shaved them off again. He promoted German beer and was filmed performing the ice bucket challenge with a cannabis plant in the background.

Yet his heritage has always raised a question over how far he could rise up the political ladder. Until now.

With Mr. Erdoğan seeking to reclaim Turkish emigrant allegiance, Mr. Özdemir has a unique position in German politics. No else is free to say the things Cem can say.

Why would a German politician of Turkish descendancy choose to adopt a cause bound to set him on a collision course with Mr. Erdoğan? Cem Özdemir

He was the first to call for the German government to recognize the Armenian genocide, the murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Turkey between 1915 and 1917. Mr. Erdoğan responded by calling him an “alleged Turk” with tainted blood.

Mr. Özdemir had long experienced threats and hate speech from both Turkish nationalists and racist Germans.

“But now,” he told his party, “the number of death threats has reached a new high.” It’s not just that he’s been called an “Armenian pig” or “son of a whore.” One asked: “Is there no one among the 2.5 million Turks in Germany that can put a bullet in this guy?”

Mr. Özdemir’s children were named in some of the threats. Living with his family in a Berlin neighborhood with a large Turkish community, he said: “I have a map in my head of where I can go shopping and where I can’t.”

He now attends public engagements with a security detail provided by the federal police.

Why would a German politician of Turkish descendancy choose to adopt a cause bound to set him on a collision course with Mr. Erdoğan? Part of the answer may be the legitimacy it has given him in mainstream German politics.

Being cursed by Mr. Erdoğan has elevated him to the status of folk hero.

And that’s boosted the chance of him being the party's candidate for chancellor when the position is put to a vote next year. And if federal elections later in 2017 result in the Greens entering government as a junior coalition partner, he could find himself with a prominent role in Angela Merkel’s government, possibly as foreign minister.

But he doesn’t just have Mr. Erdoğan to thank for such glittering prospects.

Mr. Özdemir says what he thinks – whether or not that pleases his party, Turks or Kurds. A battle for the hearts and minds of German Turks has begun and Mr. Özdemir is its most eloquent voice.

With close to 3 million citizens of Turkish background, Germany has a special interest in what unfolds in Turkey. If diplomatic representatives for Turkey call for pro-Erdoğan demonstrations in Germany, if members of the ruling AKP party agitate against German members of parliament, no one protests louder than Mr. Özdemir.

He speaks out against Turkish nationalism in Germany and has criticized the German government for its offer of a “privileged partnership” with Mr. Erdoğan aimed at getting Turkey to uphold its end of the European Union's controversial deal over refugees.

Despite his increasingly outspoken views, Mr. Özdemir doesn’t feel he has changed much. But he’s increasingly confident that the party base is behind him.

For the rest – well, a former handball goalkeeper, he says he knows what it’s like to take a ball in face from time to time. But Mr. Özdemir is increasingly running ahead as a striker. And it’s not just Mr. Erdoğan he’s scoring against.


This article was originally published in the newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]