Halle - More than two decades after two far-right youths
attacked him there and smashed his glasses, Karamba Diaby hopes to represent
the economically ailing east German city of Halle as the first black member of
Senegal-born Diaby often felt isolated as a student at Halle
University in then-communist, an overwhelmingly white East Germany in the
1980s. Nowadays he feels very much at home but says Germany still needs to do
better at integrating foreigners.
"There is definitely some catching up to do,"
Diaby, a candidate for the main centre-left opposition Social Democrats (SPD)
in Sunday's national election, told Reuters.
Diaby, 52, is clearly frustrated that media attention has
focused on his skin colour, not his politics.
"If it's so sensational that I am running for the
Bundestag [lower house], after living here for 27 years, studying here and
being politically active, that's because it has dawned on people that this
hasn't happened before," he said.
Diaby is one of two black candidates standing for election
on Sunday - the other, Charles Huber, is from Chancellor Angela Merkel's
Christian Democrats (CDU). But unlike Diaby, Huber was born in Germany, to a
German mother and Senegalese father.
Of the handful of blacks prominent in German public life,
most are sportsmen. Three members of the national soccer team in the last World
Cup in 2010 in South Africa were black.
Few German politicians have a foreign background. Those who
do typically arrived as young children, such as Economy Minister Philipp
Roesler, who was born in South Vietnam and adopted as a baby by a German
The Bundestag has half a dozen members from the largest
ethnic minority, Turks, including Cem Oezdemir, a leading Green lawmaker. Some
three million of Germany's population of 80 million are of Turkish origin.
It is unusual for a foreign-born politician to try to build
a career in the former communist East, which is home to far fewer immigrants
than the wealthier west.
"I find it remarkable that Karamba Diaby is running for
election in an eastern state," Orkan Koesemen of the Bertelsmann
Foundation said. "It sends a clear signal in a region where the immigrant
population is still small."
The far-right NPD party, which is opposed to immigration,
holds seats in two regional parliaments in eastern Germany.
"Halle is a region with young people who have a
relatively high affinity for the extreme right," said Gero Neugebauer, a
political scientist at Berlin's Free University, calling Diaby's bid to get
elected "a gamble" for him and his party.
Diaby's chances of being elected are quite good, even though
the SPD is trailing Merkel's CDU in national polls, because he is third on his
party's regional list and is also a constituency candidate, meaning people can
vote for him individually.
He began to forge closer relations with his neighbours as a
PhD student in chemistry in the early 1990s, soon after German unification,
when visited allotment gardens to research chemical contamination.
The locals were intrigued by this polite, German-speaking
young black man collecting water and soil samples.
"It wasn't exactly common for someone who looked like
me to be out and about there and people became curious," Diaby said.
"They asked many questions: where are you from? How
long are you staying here? What are you doing? Do you have a girlfriend? Is she
Diaby asked his own questions in return, probing the
concerns of nurses, professors, handymen and chemists whose lives had changed
dramatically after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and this stoked his interest in
Diaby had to give up his Senegalese passport to become a
German citizen, a requirement that still rankles. Merkel's CDU opposes double
citizenship for non-EU nationals.
The SPD, which Diaby joined in 2008, is considered more
welcoming to people with a foreign background than the CDU, which is
conservative on immigration issues.
"Those with foreign backgrounds have typically voted
for the SPD or Greens, whereas the CDU and some other parties have lagged
behind," said Neugebauer.
"That is changing now... Merkel is modernising the CDU.
If the party doesn't change it will bring about its own demise."
Huber, the other black candidate in Sunday's race, told
Reuters he had not felt any discrimination in the party.
"I've always been perceived as Bavarian within my
party. I'm always Huber, not the first black guy," he told Reuters by
telephone, speaking in a thick Bavarian regional accent.