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Unusual Candidate Could Be The First Immigrant Mayor Of Berlin

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The German capital, Berlin, will soon have a new mayor, and one of the leading candidates is an immigrant - a Palestinian-born entrepreneur. If elected, he would be the first immigrant to lead a city in a country where immigration remains a source of tension. NPR's Berlin correspondent, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, has this profile.

(APPLAUSE)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: A recent campaign event attended by the mayoral candidates here demonstrates just how popular Palestinian-born politician Raed Saleh is in Berlin.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: The female moderator asks one of his rivals to finish this sentence. Saleh would make a good mayor of Berlin because...

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: The request draws laughter and applause from the audience, and the rival named Michael Mueller, who is a confidant of the current mayor, plays along. He says Saleh would make a great mayor, just as he is a great party caucus leader - a post he'll hopefully hold for a long time to come.

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: But the 37-year-old Saleh has higher ambitions - attracting more business to Berlin and ensuring citizens in this increasingly diverse city share in that wealth.

RAED SALEH: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Saleh says if he becomes mayor, he will give a voice to the growing minority population, many of whom, like him, are the offspring of guest workers brought here a generation ago.

SALEH: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He says, I embody the new Berlin and will help make sure we rival not only other German cities, but other European capitals like London and Paris. Saleh says he was five years old when he moved from a village near the West Bank city of Nablus to what was then West Berlin.

SALEH: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Saleh says his father demanded the family learn German and integrate into German society, including becoming German citizens. The younger Saleh's first job was at Burger King, and he later co-founded a printing company. He joined the center-left Social Democrats of the current mayor, Klaus Wowereit, when he was 17 and quickly rose up the local party hierarchy.

SALEH: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Saleh lauds the current mayor, who is stepping down in part because his personal reputation has suffered from cost overruns and massive delays in the opening of Berlin's new airport. But Saleh disagrees with the mayor's slogan for Berlin, which is poor but sexy. Berlin's nearly 11 percent unemployment rate is two-thirds higher than Germany's national average.

SALEH: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He's also taken a strong stand against rising anti-Semitism here and across Germany, which erupted during the Gaza conflict. His stance and background have attracted attention here in Berlin, more so than the other two candidates. But some German analysts predict Saleh's popularity won't be enough to win him the midterm election. Gero Neugebauer is a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.

GERO NEUGEBAUER: I think his chances are rather poor. He is selling himself as the son of immigrants who had made the typical Social Democratic career. On the other side, however, his experiences in politics are not so well developed as those of his rivals.

NELSON: The vote, which by postal ballot, concludes on Friday. Whichever candidate wins a majority of those votes, must still be formally approved by the Berlin state parliament in December. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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