As a 16-year-old, Serpil Midyatli earned her first money in her uncle’s pizzeria. Today, she is vice chairwoman of the SPD. What drives her?
She recognizes tasks and tackles them: SPD Vice Chair Serpil Midyatli Photo: Markus Scholz/dpa/picture alliance
Only one waitress is responsible for the entire restaurant. Serpil Midyatli watches for a while as the woman rushes by with trays and plates, then she slides out of the bench and offers to help. She knows the job and the place very well: the current member of the state parliament, deputy federal SPD chairwoman and party leader in Schleswig-Holstein, already worked as a temp in this restaurant as a schoolgirl. "I’ve walked back and forth here a thousand times."
When Midyatli earned her first money as a 16-year-old, her uncle ran a pizzeria in these premises on Kiel’s Westring; today her brothers run "Mega Saray," a restaurant serving modern Turkish cuisine. Midyatli, the eldest of four siblings, still feels a bit responsible and has to reassure herself: "They’re old enough now."
After Midyatli’s surprising election as party vice president at the SPD party conference in December, media spoke of an astonishing result, an "improbable success." Yet Midyatli’s recipe for success can already be found in this short scene: She recognizes tasks, tackles them instead of chattering on for a long time, but also lets others have a go. She is quick, spontaneous and can organize.
But does she have a plan, an agenda? Her entry into politics was not actually planned, but happened almost by chance. During the 2000 election campaign, she took part as an entrepreneur in an SPD panel discussion with then-Prime Minister Heide Simonis. On stage, she flew into a rage over the campaign of Hessian Prime Minister Roland Koch (CDU) against dual citizenship for children born in Germany to foreign parents. "They talk about us, but not with us!"
She does not miss opportunities
When asked if she didn’t want to join the SPD, "I said yes while still on stage," she says today. In 2009, she moved up the list to the Schleswig-Holstein state parliament, where she took on issues such as daycare and integration. Ralf Stegner, the longtime leader of the state party, was considered her fan and supporter.
There was also an element of chance in the election for vice chairwoman of the federal SPD: because the group of deputies was expanded from three to five, the woman from the small state association got her chance.
But coincidence or not: Serpil Midyatli makes clever use of such opportunities. She gave a brilliant speech and received the best result of the deputy ranks with almost 80 percent. And when she has taken on a task, she gets to work. Even as a new member, she had taken on economic issues in the local council in the Kiel district of Gaarden.
Gaarden is considered a so-called hot spot, where many low-income and migrant families live. Midyatli spent most of her childhood and youth in Gaarden, after the family initially lived in Mettenhof. The high-rise housing estate was founded in the 1960s as a modern neighborhood for white-collar workers, but later lower-income people moved into the West German version of the Plattenbau housing estate. Midyatli’s parents were among them.
Overcoming all hurdles
They came from Turkey. His father came to work for the shipyard company HDW. Her mother followed later. Serpil Midyatli was born in 1975. Her parents were ambitious and full of ideas: "My father realized that there was no place where large families could celebrate," she reports.
This observation was the birth of the "Mega Saray," the "big palace" in the heart of Gaarden: a Turkish restaurant with a banqueting hall and catering. In this restaurant, Serpil Midyalti learned to keep her nerve and improvise: "300 guests were booked and 400 came – you have to feed them all," she says.
At the age of 18, Midyatli took over the management of the hall operations and catering. Her uncle, where she had previously worked, had suggested it. At the same time, the young woman was about to graduate from high school and was school president, her first public office.
None of this had been expected in first grade: The teacher made her and her siblings draw pictures in the back of the room because she assumed that "the Turks" didn’t understand German and would soon leave anyway. Serpil Midyatli spoke the language perfectly well, and a return was never an option for her parents, who had invested their money in the restaurant. Midyatli repeated the first grade, and the next teacher encouraged her.
With the encouragement of her parents, she switched to high school. The plan was to go to college: "I was thinking about law." But after her family decided she should go into business, she dropped out of school: "It wasn’t like I had a choice," she says, and immediately adds, "I’m glad my life path turned out this way."
That she – unlike most professional politicians* – has neither the highest school degree nor studies, so what? "I have no problem with that." On the contrary, she says, she is pleased that the state parliament is becoming more diverse and allows for different life stories. She was the first Muslim woman in Kiel’s parliament. Faith is important to her, even if she doesn’t strictly follow the rules: A glass of wine is fine, she has never worn a headscarf.
In the meantime, Midyatli herself has two sons, years old. For her, career and family have always belonged together: Four days before the birth of her son, she and her husband leased the "Raucherei," a Kiel cult pub and event center. Today, her husband takes care of the household and the children, and has her back. But Midyatli has internalized the rule that "if you’re self-employed, you have to work all the time.
That also applies to politics: Every appointment can be used for networking, for a conversation on the sidelines. The Kiel native wants to keep her feet on the ground, wants to "know what the reality of life is like." In a self-description, she calls "approaching people" the core of her political style: "Because for me, it’s about solving everyday problems."
Ralf Stegner once called her "a volcano"
She can get sharp and defend her position pointedly. "Does anyone else have a heckler ready?" she shouted into the plenary chamber during a debate on the daycare law. "You’re welcome, it’s just an incentive!"
She also needs to be tough because, as a woman with an immigrant background, she is doubly criticized. Hate messages and mobbing, especially against volunteers, are a huge social problem for which there must be a solution, says Midyatli. Personally, she has never let herself be swayed by this. That’s Serpil Midyatli speaking, whom former state party leader Ralf Stegner calls a "volcano."
She "always got along well" with Stegner’s "direct manner," says Midyatli, who is also considered a party leftist. The fact that she ran for state chairwoman even though Stegner wanted to stay in office had to do with the state of the party, the "frustration after the loss" of the state government in May 2017, she says. "There was a feeling at the base that something had to change at the top." She had run "because I wanted to make my contribution."
In the meantime, she has also replaced her political mentor on the federal executive board. The change has not helped; a recent survey puts the SPD in Schleswig-Holstein at 20 percent, 7 points less than in 2017.
Midyatli remains optimistic, also for the federal SPD: "We have a new leadership duo, there is a new beginning." She is focusing on "future issues," such as daycare policy or the changes in the world of work due to digitalization. In the state party, she wants more teamwork and to "stay close to the issues that are important in people’s everyday lives." That includes having the courage to change positions if they prove to be wrong. And her example should encourage others to get involved politically: "There’s room for everyone in the SPD, and the way up is open."