Could a Rishi Sunak Rise to the Top in Germany?

Germany's electorally most successful party, the center-right CDU, still underrepresents ethnic minorities in top positions. In contrast, the Tories have embraced minorities and elected Rishi Sunak as prime minister. The CDU could learn from the Tories.

London, United Kingdom – October 25 2022: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak poses outside 10 Downing Street as he assumes office. © I T S / shutterstock.com

November 15, 2022 02:49 EDT

Rishi Sunak is now prime minister of the UK. He is the first person of color and the first non-Christian to ascend to the country’s highest office. On the day of the Hindu festival Diwali this year, the Conservative Party offered Sunak the keys to 10 Downing Street. The Tories could not have timed it better.

Sunak’s rise and the number of minority candidates who ran for the top job in the previous party leadership race demonstrate a key fact: the Tories are brimming with ethnic diversity. Six of the original eleven candidates, Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, Rehman Chishti, Sajid Javid, Rishi Sunak, and Nadhim Zawahi, come from ethnic minorities. Such a diverse group of contestants was no fluke. It was the result of targeted approaches, particularly toward South Asians in the UK, and a willingness to propel ethnic minority MPs into ministerial offices.

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the center-right party of Germany, does not represent ethnic minorities in the same way as the Tories. The Conservative Party could potentially serve as a model for the CDU.

Merkel’s Cabinets – Ethnic Diversity Missing

A comparison of Boris Johnson’s and Angela Merkel’s cabinets highlights the ethnic diversity gap between the Tories and the CDU. Boris Johnson’s first cabinet, from July to November 2019, was already ethnically more diverse than that of his predecessors. In Johnson’s second and last cabinet, about 25% of cabinet ministers had an ethnic minority background. The percentage of ethnic minorities in the UK is only 14%, making this overrepresentation remarkable.

Merkel’s four cabinets during her 16-year tenure from 2005 to 2021 reveal a contrasting picture. Under Merkel, not a single CDU cabinet minister came from an ethnic minority background. This is striking because ethnic minorities comprise 26% of Germany’s population. While 34% of Tory MPs come from ethnic minorities, the figure is only 4.1% for the CDU.

Neglecting German Turks for Too Long

The rise of ethnic minorities in the Conservative Party has roots in the 1980s. The Tories identified the South Asian community as a target group. Margaret Thatcher’s government was particularly successful in winning over prosperous East African Indians. Her party slowly detached itself from its xenophobic legacy, epitomized most starkly by Enoch Powell’s “Rivers Of Blood” speech.

On the other hand, the CDU failed to make such an appeal to the German Turks, the largest ethnic minority comprising more than 1.2 million voters.  In fact, in 1982, Helmut Kohl’s government tried to lure the immigrant Turks from the 1960s to return to their homeland with an incentive of a return payment. In leaked confidential conversations with none other than Margaret Thatcher, Kohl communicated his ultimately unexecuted intention to reduce “Turks in Germany […] by 50% […] It would be impossible for Germany to assimilate the Turks in their present numbers […] Turks come from a very distinctive culture and would not be easily integrated.”

Furthermore, in the 1990s, Kohl’s so-called “asylum compromise” restricted the possibility of invoking the fundamental right of asylum. Consequently, the CDU lost trust among the German Turks. Added to that, the CDU conducted election campaigns ignoring the German Turks by opposing their demand for dual citizenship.The “C” that stands for Christian in the party name also had a deterrent effect on  many Turks. Meanwhile, some conservative values of German Turks are close to those of the CDU. As migration researcher, Haci-Halil Uslucan told the newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel: “If the CDU does not emphasize the “C” too strongly, it is very close in terms of its attitude to a large part of the population of Turkish origin.“

The CDU eventually recognized German Turks as potential voters and managed to loosen the traditional electoral grip of the Social Democrats (SPD) on German Turks in its favor for the last two federal elections. The SPD’s failure to enforce dual citizenship while in power and the belated expulsion of Thilo Sarrazin, a party member and author who published books with Islamophobic undertones, alienated German Turks from the SPD.

Besides the inadequacies of the SPD, Merkel’s well appreciated refugee policy, which allowed 890,000 asylum seekers to enter Germany in 2015, drew German Turks to the CDU. “I am also the Chancellor of German Turks.”, canvassed Merkel in 2016, reinforcing her commitment to fortify Germany as an immigration society.

No Political Will at the Highest Levels of Power

Merkel’s already belated commitment further fueled the lack of representation of federal cabinet ministers from ethnic minority backgrounds since no further action was taken. 

The CDU has hardly shown any interest in awarding the highest party and executive offices to MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds. Before, during and after Merkel’s tenure, hardly any MP’s from ethnic minority backgrounds were awarded the highest party and executive offices from high-powered intra-party figures of the CDU. 

In contrast, the Tories underpinned their courtship of South Asians through political action at the highest levels of power. In 2015, former prime minister David Cameron resolutely said, “The first black or Asian prime minister will be a conservative”. Under the slogan “2020 Vision“, he pledged to increase the proportion of parliamentary party members with an ethnic minority background by 2020. 

Boris Johnson built upon this vision with his ethnically diverse cabinets, though his underlying motives for these appointments to offices are open to debate. Johnson calls himself a “one-man melting pot” in light of his Turkish and Russian-Jewish family history and his second wife being of Indian origin. However, Priti Patel, Alok Sharma, and Rishi Sunak’s appointments to their ministerial posts could be viewed as rewards for their pro-Brexit stances. The same rationale can be applied to the appointments of Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch, and Kwasi Kwarteng into Truss’s “most right-wing cabinet for a generation”, all of whom also voted for Brexit.

In comparison, the CDU has a lack of similar influential political figures willing to promote ethnic minority representation in government offices. During her four terms, Merkel missed a vital opportunity to hire more personnel from ethnic minority backgrounds into the CDU/CSU’s Bundestag parliamentary groups. Instead of seizing this opportunity, she simply failed to concretise her lip service. 

Armin Laschet, Merkel’s direct successor as party leader, could have been a rare facilitator of change and spearheaded a more diverse government. He proved his credentials as the integration minister of Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, calling for more ethnic minority MPs in 2010. He also published a book entitled “The Upstart Republic: Immigration as an Opportunity“ the year before, highlighting his pro-immigration stance. 

After he was elected North Rhine-Westphalia’s Minister-President, Laschet set an example by appointing a Turk, Serap Güler, as State Secretary for Integration in 2017. To this date, Güler is considered one of the few prominent German Turks in the CDU who could ascend to the federal party’s highest ranks in the years to come. In an interview with the Turkish newspaper Hürryiet during the Bundestag election campaign in 2021, Laschet displayed his determination to canvas German Turks.

When asked whether there would be a CDU minister with an ethnic minority background under his chancellorship, he replied, “We’ll talk about the cabinet formation after the Bundestag elections. But in fact, [our Bundestag is] not really diverse […]. If a quarter of the population has an immigration biography, but in a parliamentary group, there are only one or two people, that is not representative. […] I would like to see more people with immigration history, including more people of Turkish origin […] in the Bundestag – and the federal government.” Yet, he was defeated by Olaf Scholz after a disastrous election campaign, handing over the party chair to Friedrich Merz after just a year. 

More Ethnic Minority Representation Under Merz?

The successful careers of Rishi Sunak, Kwasi Kwarteng, and Sajid Javid, among others within the party, should serve as a target position for the CDU. The Tories have been accused of mere symbolism as there has been a lack of substantive representation in terms of policies benefiting ethnic minorities. Despite this, the party has continued to recognize that ethnic minority representation within the cabinet has to reflect the UK’s realities of an immigration society and is paramount to winning new electoral majorities. 

The CDU still lags behind the Tories in representing minorities. They have been late in approaching ethnic minority target groups such as the German Turks. The belated avowals of CDU politicians of Germany as a society with a high number of immigrants and the lack of political  will to represent them have led to inadequate representation of minorities as MPs and ministers. It is doubtful if this representative deficit will be rectified under Merz, the present party leader and staunch conservative.
Despite promising to modernize and open up the party to new target groups, Merz has done the opposite. He countered his promise by advocating for more restrictive immigration policies and pronouncing the target of winning back voters from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). This does not bode well for ethnic diversity in the CDU and will ensure that the representative deficit continues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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