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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)


When the right turns left on diversity Add to ...

Does this sound familiar? A conservative political party, previously opposed to immigration and multiculturalism, realizes where its future lies and changes its policies, its message and some of its key faces in hopes of becoming the party of choice for racial and ethnic minorities.

This is increasingly the story of right-wing politics across the Western world, at least for the moment. It’s what happened in Canada under Stephen Harper and in Britain under David Cameron. And now we seem to be watching the conservative diversity tide sweep into Germany.

The “pro-immigrant right” have not, to put it mildly, been a traditional force in continental European politics. But Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to form a coalition government this month have taken an interesting turn.

Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union appears to have accepted the idea, first proposed on the left, of permitting dual citizenship for Germans of immigrant background. It’s a policy designed to appeal mainly to the roughly three million Turkish Germans. Her party once opposed it fiercely, but things have changed: The CDU has appointed a smattering of minorities, visible and religious, to important positions and has begun campaigning more heavily in immigrant districts.

“We’re still a decade behind Canada and Britain in having conservative parties attract immigrants, but things are moving in that direction more quickly now,” says Dr. Orkan Kosemen of the Bertelsmann Foundation.

In a study of Germany’s major political parties Dr. Kosemen published this year, he found that Ms. Merkel’s CDU has leapt after the minority vote most dramatically. Until 2005, her party and the centre-left opposition Social Democrats both viewed ethnic diversity mostly as a matter of “internal security.” Then things changed: “The CDU is the German party which in recent years has had the biggest readjustment of its policy so that it can be for and about immigrants,” Dr. Kosemen wrote.

Why would conservative parties embrace immigrant communities, after decades spent battling the left’s embrace of them?

For one thing, because it wins elections: As the Republicans learned in the United States in 2008 and 2012, and Britain’s Conservatives learned painfully in the 1990s and early 2000s, those immigrants and their offspring are important voters in key constituencies. There are 5.6-million voters, 9 per cent of those registered, with what Germans like to call “a migration background.”

Second, these parties have realized it’s inevitable that these groups will increase in number. A new study this week by the London-based European University Institute projects that European Union countries will lose a sixth of their working-age population by 2025 due to aging and small family sizes. An estimated 21.5-million immigrants will be needed to fill that gap.

And, finally, some party leaders have recognized that many immigrant communities are socially and economically conservative – religious, small-business-minded, just right for the right. If, that is, the right can keep its loudmouthed anti-immigration branch from speaking up and ruining the party.

And that’s where the difficulties begin. When conservatives become immigration champions, they’re gambling that the new, multihued voters won’t collide headlong with the voters who join to oppose immigration and minority rights.

There are four possible outcomes.

The first has been encountered by Mr. Cameron: Party xenophobes flee to another, more conservative party – in Britain’s case, the UK Independence Party, which is likely to win the most seats in next year’s EU elections and could challenge him nationally. The second is what happened to George W. Bush, who tried, haltingly, to change his Republican Party by appointing minorities to top jobs and proposing citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In response, the GOP was taken over by its anti-immigrant branch, the Tea Party (and thus lost two elections in a row).

The third outcome is the one French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivered his conservatives: After an early lunge for minority voters, he was terrified to find an extreme-right party gaining on him – so he reversed himself and adopted the intolerant rhetoric and policies of the far right. That reversal also cost his party an election.

The fourth outcome is what Ms. Merkel and everyone else desires: Mr. Harper’s position, where immigrant ridings fall to your party and the “send-’em-all-back-home” branch is too pleased by success to revolt. It will take time and study to determine whether that approach has actually worked. For now, though, it’s what many conservatives are seeking.

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