Is Tarek al-Wazir a face of Germany?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 4, 2018

A man on a mission. Tarek al-Wazir leaves the polling station after he cast his vote for the Hesse state election in Offenbach, on October 28. (AP)

Could a single German regional election be a hopeful template for tomorrow?

Perhaps. Consider this.

Hesse, Germany’s most prosperous region, voted October 28 amid election posters emblazoned with “Tarek statt GroKo,” which translates as “Tarek instead of GroKo.” The GroKo reference was to Germany’s fractious, federal grand coalition made up of the traditional parties of government and headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Tarek” is Tarek Mohammed al-Wazir, a star of the Green Party and the dual-national son of a German teacher and a Yemeni diplomat.

How did the German Greens dare to pose that juxtaposition in a country in which the far right is inexorably on the rise?

Hesse’s election is a lesson in retail politics — a good salesman can always sell a good product, no matter his ethnicity, especially if his wares are judged wholesome.

It’s been a while since Wazir, 47, first topped opinion polls as one of the most popular politicians in Hesse. Though he has served four years in government — as Hesse’s deputy leader and economy minister — Wazir remarkably retains the spiritedness and appeal of an outsider. And Wazir is seen to be a man on a mission.

On Election Day, he delivered. He led his party to triumph of a sort. Though it didn’t win outright, the Hesse Greens doubled their share of the vote. Their performance guaranteed the Greens a place in the new regional coalition government and Wazir the chance to continue as Hesse’s deputy leader. This makes Wazir one of Germany’s few politicians (and possibly the only prominent one) with an Arab background.

Is he an oddity or an opportunity for Germany 2018? Perhaps he is both. Wazir’s Greens secured nearly 20% of the state vote at the same time the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) tripled its electoral support to approximately 13%.

Wazir is an oddity in a generally blonde, blue-eyed political system. He is a visually distinct politician, with a name that marks him out and an agenda that is broadly focused on a liberal, progressive plan for action. Wazir is also an opportunity to showcase the 21st-century German narrative of a country at ease with itself and those within its borders.

Wazir serves as a reminder there are many Germanys, including one that votes for the far-right AfD. The AfD base is strong enough nationally to allow the party a presence in all 16 state legislatures.

But there are also the many German voters in search of a coherent plan for governance and a reasoned approach to the world. They assess Wazir on his merits as a politician, no matter what he looks like or who his father was. It’s fair to say Wazir ticks some of the latter boxes.

He is certainly an eye-catching symbol of Germany’s acceptance of diversity. This matters, especially in Hesse, home to Frankfurt, Germany’s banking and air transport hub. Wazir’s political high profile undoubtedly helps Germany present itself to an international audience.

His rise came even as far-right sentiment was beginning to surge. In the past few years, the AfD, like other anti-migrant parties across Europe, has run a virulent campaign against outsiders, especially Muslims and Arabs. How has Wazir managed to stay unscathed? Is he unscathed?

To hear Wazir tell it, he suffered from the AfD’s discriminatory politics long before the party was founded in 2013. Growing up in 1970s Germany, he faced discrimination. He has spoken about the challenges of living in a society that labelled Italians “spaghetti-eaters” and considered people like him a “foreigner.”

That was presumably the case even in Offenbach, the city where Wazir spent his boyhood. It has Germany’s largest proportion of people with a migrant background but Offenbach was still probably of its times.

Happily, though, Wazir symbolises our times. He said the Greens’ success is because the party has taken a “clear stance” against the AfD. “All other parties have gone crazy about the AfD,” he told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “We defend a society that is open to the world and multifaceted.”

Married to a Yemeni woman and the father of two children, Wazir is a strong voice for ending German arms shipments that could worsen the Yemen War.

At the end of the day, that’s a pretty standard sort of Green politics for all that Wazir is an unusual German politician.