Is EU’s most leftwing capital about to go Conservative?
Is Berlin — the European capital still synonymous with anarchists, cheap rent, squats, and May Day riots — poised to be ruled by the Conservative CDU party as of Monday (13 February)?
In theory, it seems implausible, not least because the city of 3.6m people is currently governed by a Red/Red/Green [SPD/Left/Green] coalition, reflecting its international reputation as one of the most leftwing cities in Europe.
But in reality, the CDU revolution is a distinct possibility, even a likelihood.
The latest polls put the CDU narrowly in pole position, on 24-26 percent, compared to the SPD and Greens, both on 19 percent.
If that translates into votes at Sunday’s (12 February) re-run city-state election, it will see the CDU’s Kai Wegner as mayor.
He could then rule in a coalition with possibly the Greens and liberal FDP party, or even a grand coalition with a second- (or third) place defeated SPD.
For a city ruled by the centre-left SPD for more than two decades, famously under the charismatic Klaus Wowereit, who coined the phrase "Poor — But Sexy" to encapsulate Berlin’s bohemian spirit, it would be a catastrophic loss of face.
Not least since Berlin is, since reunification, home to the federal German government and most ministries — led by a SPD/Green/FDP coalition since September 2021, after voters kicked out the CDU from government upon chancellor Angela Merkel’s retirement.
Berlin is currently being led by its first ever woman, the SPD’s Franziska Giffey.
But the fact Berlin’s roughly 2.3m voters are going to the polls at all on Sunday is one of the reasons for Giffey’s flagging support.
The next Berlin state election (the city-state capital is one of 16 German states) was not supposed to be until 2026.
But the 2021 Berlin election was so badly organised — running out of voting papers, not enough polling booths, being held on the same day as the Berlin marathon, when 41km of city-centre streets were shut down — that in November 2022 the constitutional court ruled the result invalid and forced the contest to be run again.
Even if not all of that debacle can be laid at Giffeys’ door, campaigning on a "Because She Can Do It" slogan, when the city couldn’t even organise a legally-recognised election, has not helped her campaign.
Nor has her lack of notable achievements in the admittedly short 15 months she has occupied the Rotes Rathaus [Red Townhall, named red after the colour of the bricks, rather than its political complexion].
Giffey was minister for families under Merkel’s coalition government, and has spent her first months in office trying to turn around Berlin’s failing school system, but the re-run comes too early for her efforts to have borne fruit.
Her widely-perceived reputation by Berliners as being on the right-wing end of the spectrum of her centre-left party, and her lack of charisma, have also stood against her.
Meanwhile, the Greens, the second-partner in the current coalition and again in government at national level, have maintained their solid 19 percent poll rating.
This makes their mayoral candidate, Bettina Jarasch, a possible first-ever Green mayor, if the party manages a slight uplift on Sunday.
But that still leaves Wegner, a 50-year old former insurance salesman who lost in the 2021 vote, in pole position.
Wegner is seen as being on the left side of his party — he broke ranks to vote in favour of same-sex marriage six years ago, for instance.
He is cleverly running on a slogan of "So That Berlin Works", reflecting the rest of Germany (and many Berliners’) perception that the capital is a financial basket case.
The city’s coffers are around €63bn in deficit. Problems with its new airport famously took a decade to fix. And its new subway line is paralysed by a luxury hotel cracking the tunnel.
And Berlin has changed.
Districts such as Kreuzberg and Neukolln still have some flavour of the techno squats and free parties of the 1990s and early 2000s, but many of the artists and creatives who gave the city its flavour have been forced out by a decade plus of astronomical rent rises and gentrification.
Outside the city centre, Berlin has plenty of wealthy conservative suburbs, and, indeed, inner-city working-class CDU voters.
It also has a fringe of hard-right extremists, often concentrated in the former East Berlin districts, where unemployment is still high (Berlin as a whole has Germany’s second-highest unemployment rate, at 8.7 percent, and it is double that or more in some of the poorer eastern districts).
The far-right campaign slogans — "Zero Tolerance to Asylum Fraud", "Harsh But Fair" and "Especially Now, Right" — with pictures of handguns being aimed at police patrol cars, and soundbites such as "More Education, Less Ideology", has put them beyond the pale for the mainstream parties.
This means that even a 10 percent vote share will not see them becoming kingmakers or invited into any coalition.
If Wegner tops the vote, depending on how the other parties fare, he could be looking at a Black/Green/Yellow (CDU/Green/FDP) coalition, or even a possible grand coalition, such as the one which ran Germany between 2018-2021, with the possible addition of the liberals.
And a Wegner mayoralty?
One of his top priorities is the completion of a 1960s-era inner-city motorway project, so controversial it has been stalled for more than a decade.
If completed, it is likely to prove so unpopular (only the CDU, the FDP and the AfD are in favour) it may well sink any chance he has of re-election in 2026. Be careful what you wish for.