Berlin’s Recent Botched Election Breeds Public Distrust

Berlin’s Recent Botched Election Breeds Public Distrust

Berlin’s Recent Botched Election Breeds Public Distrust

So does the Social Democrats’ failure to address the housing crisis.


Berlin—An unprecedented do-over election here last Sunday, February 12, put the notoriously left-wing German capital on the precipice of conservative government for the first time in two decades. The revote for state and municipal government—ordered by the state’s constitutional court after widespread mishandling of the September 2021 polls—saw support for the Social Democrats (SPD) plummet, while the rival Christian Democrats (CDU) surged more than 10 percent to 28.2 percent to take the clear lead among parties.

“Berlin chose change,” proclaimed Kai Wegner, the CDU’s top candidate—albeit a bit prematurely. While negotiations may still return the Red-Red-Green coalition of the SPD, the Green party and the Left party to power with a narrow majority, the results signal deep discontent among Berliners about the direction of the city under SPD Mayor Franziska Giffey. Support for her party fell to 18.4 percent—its lowest since German reunification—putting them in a practical tie for second place with the Greens, while the Left party maintained its traditional base of support, with 12.2 percent. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) also maintained its appeal among a small swath of voters in the latest poll with 9.1 percent support, despite having almost no chance of entering government. Complex negotiations could take up to six weeks before party leaders agree on a coalition arrangement.

While the election hiccups are one obvious reason for discontent, another equally troubling issue is Giffey’s pointed refusal to take action in response to a historic 2021 referendum that saw 59.1 percent of voters endorse expropriating major landlords in the city to order to increase the supply of publicly-held housing. Support for the successful campaign “Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen” (Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen and Co.), which I covered for The Nation, cut across many social groups outside the traditional hard left, including many SPD voters. No wonder, in the face of a housing crisis and indifferent leadership, 68 percent of Berliners recently reported that their trust in political institutions had declined.

While the city of Berlin was never viewed as the paragon of German efficiency, the 2021 election mess is still remarkable: polling sites without enough ballots, or with the wrong ones; hours-long lines that delayed voting into the night; a marathon race on polling day that blocked traffic across the capital. When the Constitutional Court finally threw out the results more than a year after the botched vote, SPD leadership failed to take ownership of the situation, giving an easy attack line to the opposition on the right who claimed that the city was poorly run. Wegner and other CDU politicians engaged in dog-whistle politics connecting the narrative of urban mismanagement by City Hall to crime and disorder in the streets, especially after New Year’s Eve “riots” in several immigrant-heavy neighborhoods.

“Berlin is a city of homelessness and child poverty” argued Wegner. “I want Berlin to become a city where everyone finds their place. That hasn’t happened in Berlin in recent years under the SPD.” And while right-wing Bavarian leader Markus Söder’s slandering of Berlin as a “chaos city” that could “neither organize elections nor guarantee the safety of its citizens” is far from the truth, the election fiasco understandably exposed the SPD to widespread criticism—including from the left.

Giffey, who hardly hid her disdain for the housing referendum mandate since taking office, made her administration an easy target for activist vitriol as she chose to ignore the popular will. “We are declaring this reelection as a declaration of war on those who are blocking the referendum,” announced Gisèle Beckouche, a spokeswoman for DW Enteignen, to the Berliner Zeitung in November. The campaign blanketed the city in posters asking citizens to “Vote Out the Real Estate Lobby!” with x-ed out caricatures of Giffey (SPD), Wegner (CDU), and the city’s senator for urban development, Andreas Geisel (SPD).

Candidates from all parties were put on record as to whether they support implementing the referendum mandate to socialize large swaths of housing. While nearly all Green and Left party representatives do, only nine of the 36 SPD candidates confirmed their support. During the recent campaign, Giffey even shifted her reasoning for opposing the housing mandate from procedural to personal objections after the interim report from the expert commission her own administration set up to study the constitutionality of expropriating major landlords found few legal issues with the action. At a candidate forum last month, she framed her resistance in purely personal terms, explaining how she was born “in another country,” East Germany, “where expropriation had another dimension. I cannot reconcile my conscience with advocating expropriations.” Even in the likely case that the final report of the Berlin Senate’s expert commission, due this spring, finds legal grounds for action, Giffey will still balk: “What is theoretically possible does not mean that it really is good for the city.”

Notwithstanding the SPD’s latest loss, its coalition partners in Berlin have so-far indicated their preference to keep alive the Red-Red-Green governing coalition despite protests from the CDU, which seeks to take the reins after its historic gains in the poll this week. Nationally, the poor showing for the SPD in Berlin mirrors political struggles facing Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose government is confronting compounding crises of energy, inflation, and the war in Ukraine. As Giffey attempts to limp back into office, she would be wise to take just as seriously Berliners’ “protest” vote for housing relief in 2021 as their flight to opposition parties this time around. That might go a long way toward restoring trust.

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