Immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon in Denmark and as a consequence the number of politicians with an immigrant background is still relatively low. The reason is partly to be found in apathy and alienation but the fact that immigrant communities and Danish political organisations have only really begun to integrate during the last 10 years is another important explanation.
This integration is by no means an easy or quick process. However immigrants have started to make their way into the local and national arena. After the 2005 local elections 4 out of 17 councillors in Ishøj just south of Copenhagen – which has a large immigrant population – have an immigrant backgound while the proportion in Århus is 6 out of 31 and in Copenhagen 7 out of 55. (I’m not quite sure if Heidi Wang who is ethnically Chinese should be counted as an immigrant – in that case the number is 8 out of 55).
Even though the Turks (and Kurds who are often mistaken for Turks in Denmark) form the largest immigrant community in Denmark, it is the Pakistanis who have most often hit the headlines. The case of Wallait Khan may illustrate some of the problems Pakistanis have in adjusting to the Danish society – and Danes in understanding immigrant communities.
The “Khan Affair”
What we might call the Khan Affair started shortly after the election when Wallait Khan – who had been elected on the Liberal Party’s list – defected from his party to join the new majority coalition of Social Democrats, Social Liberals, Socialists and the Unity List. Khan’s move meant that the three centre-right parties would only get one of seven mayoral portfolios in stead of two while Khan would be made second deputy chairman of the City Council. This is not a full time post nor even a politically important post but it is relatively well paid and definitely a spoil that parties would be interested in.
The affair really started to take off because Khan has a complicated history both within the Pakistani community and the Danish political system.
The Danish Connection
Khan started his political career in the local Immigrant List, which ran candidates for the local elections in Copenhagen back in the late 1980s, before switching to the Socialist Party.
In 2000 he then made a high profile switch to the Liberal Party: The Liberals welcomed him as a symbol of entrepreneurship and he was also a useful profile in a situation where immigration and integration policies were becoming hotly debated subjects in Danish politics. The Liberals could use Khan and other immigrants as proof that the party wasn’t intolerant and that the left-wing didn’t have a monopoly on the immigrant vote.
The Socialists were less happy: It surfaced that Khan had succeeded in building a debt to the party, which according to the party statutes would have prevented him from standing on the party’s ticket for the 2001 local elections.
In this light Khan’s defection looked more like opportunism than an ideologically motivated move.
Why Khan chose to defect back to the left-wing is less clear. The Liberal party hasn’t – yet – planted any stories that could undermine his credibility in the media, but what is clear is that his price for joining the left-wing coalition was the office as second deputy chairman of the City Council.
Even though many Socialists were happy to leave the centre-right with only one mayoral portfolio, they were less than happy about supporting Khan. Several members of the Socialist, Social Democratic and Social Liberal Parties as well as the Unity List have voiced their concern and the cohesion of the coalition is far from certain.
Defect once and you lose political credibility. Defect twice and you lose all of it.
The Pakistani Connection
Be that as it may, but things only really started to get ugly when Khan’s Pakistani connections were brought to public attention.
First, Khan was accused of litterally speaking with two tongues by allegedly supporting the islamist movements Hisb-ut-Tahir and Minhaj-ul-Quran (my excuses if the spelling is not correct) in Urdu publications while supporting – or at least not distancing himself from – the Liberal party line on those movements. In the end, Khan declared on Monday evening that he did not support islamist attacts on the Danish political system.
Second, it was revealed that Khan – who is a Pakistani citizen – not only had been absent from many plenary and committee meetings in the City Council during the last term but that he had also spent much time in Pakistan trying to get elected to a local office there.
Thirdly, conflicts within the Pakistani community in Denmark were brought to the light as former associates and activits of the Pakistani Association accused Khan of – to put it mildly – economic mismanagement. To round things off, newspaper reports linked Khan to violent confrontations and other types of conflicts more often associated with the activities of criminal gangs than of politicians in Denmark.
Finally, a comic climax was reached this Monday when Social Democratic councillor Sikandar Malik Siddique – or rather Siddique’s father who belongs to a different faction than Khan in the Pakistani community – declared that he would not support an agreement that would make Khan second deputy chairman of the City Council.
That move may have damaged Khan, but it didn’t do much to help young Siddique’s chances in Danish politics.
A Clash of Cultures or a Comic Interlude?
Even if Danish local politics has had its share of strange characters – the inimitable Louise Frevert and the disgraced ex-mayor of Farum Peter Brixtofte may serve as a recent cases in point – Khan’s behaviour and the conflicts surrounding him must surely seem bizarre to a Danish public.
On the other hand parts of Khan’s behaviour make sense if we see him as a traditional aspiring clan-leader acting to position himself within his community and trying to excercise patronage. In this case ideologies and political organisations are merely instruments used to achieve other goals. Whether or not this sort of behaviour is compatible with a political system that has evolved over more than a century and where ideological and social rather than clan-based cleavages are important remains to be seen.
It should also be noted that even though family and clan ties allegedly are important in immigrant politics, then the kind of outrageous behaviour that we have seen from Khan during the last two weeks is the exception rather than the rule among politicians with an immigrant background.
It may well be that Khan will regret seeking a high-profile political office: The deputy chairman Hellen Hedeman is said to have voiced her concern about Khan’s ability to fullfill the duties of a chairman or deputy chairman.
To play truant from the Taxi Licence Board’s meetings may be one thing, to go AWOL from a City Hall reception – any City Hall reception – will be a public relations disaster, especially now that the national media have set their eyes on him.