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Berlin’s Repeat Elections: Racist Campaign Pushes the City to the Right

Last Sunday, the conservative party won the most votes in Berlin’s local elections. It remains unclear who will be the city’s next mayor.

Nathaniel Flakin

February 19, 2023
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A group of excited people holding campaign signs for Kai Wegner.
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Last Sunday, Berliners went to the polls again. The elections of September 2021 had to be repeated, with the exact same election lists, because many polling places had lacked proper ballots. Berlin’s bureaucracy has a well-deserved reputation for extreme incompetence. So after just 1.5 years in office, the social democratic mayor Franziska Giffey had to run again.

The results were quite different than on the last attempt. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won first place with 28 percent of votes, almost ten points more than in 2021. Giffey’s SPD lost three points, coming in at 18.4 percent — the social democrats’ worst result in (West) Berlin since 1945. The Green Party won 18 percent as well, just 105 votes behind the SPD, while Die Linke (The Left party) got 12 percent. This means the current government, a “red-red-green” coalition of SPD, Greens, and Linke, was able to hold onto a majority, despite losses for all three parties. The far-right AfD improved on its previous result slightly, reaching 9 percent, while the hyper-neoliberal FDP will not enter parliament as it remained just below the 5 percent threshold.

All the parties are now engaged in hectic behind-the-scenes negotiations about forming a new Senate. The SPD, Greens, and Die Linke could continue their coalition — though it won’t be easy to keep the deeply unpopular Giffey in office. Kai Wegner, the CDU candidate, claims that he has a mandate to be Berlin’s next mayor. Yet Wegner has no obvious path to a majority in the city’s parliament. He would need to win over either the SPD or the Greens for a coalition — both parties have said they are open to negotiate, although they prefer their current partners.

The CDU had not been a major player in Berlin politics since the Bank Scandal of 2001, when it was discovered that conservative politicians had squandered tens of billions of euros with financial speculation. How did they become the largest party again? It certainly had little to do with Wegner — a poor speaker whose racist demagoguery feels more opportunistic than deeply felt. This totally unknown politician would have had difficulty winning an election to be a small town dogcatcher. 

The secret to the CDU’s success was a protest vote. Just 24 percent of Berliners approve of the current Senate — one of the lowest values ever measured in Germany. At the same time, a majority of 52 percent believed that a CDU-led Senate would be no better. In a sense, this is the famously cantankerous Berliner declaring: “Allet Scheiße!” (Roughly: It’s all terrible!) Fully half of CDU voters said they made their choice because they were disappointed in other parties

Berlin’s administration is famously dysfunctional. The failed election was just one symptom. Berliners often have to wait months for an appointment at a government office to get a new ID. The city’s biggest problem is a lack of housing, as rents are going through the roof. This is why 59% of voters called for the expropriation of big landlords in 2021, at the same time as the last election. The Senate and mayor Giffey have obstinately ignored this democratic mandate, and have been doing everything in its power to sabotage the referendum. Both the Greens and Die Linke, who claim to be in favor of expropriation, went along with this farce in order to get ministerial seats.

The CDU was able to win votes with a racist campaign, particularly after the mini-riots that took place on New Year’s Eve. There were weeks of round-the-clock media panic about supposed violence by young men in immigrant neighborhoods like Neukölln who “refused to integrate” into German society. This has since been revealed to be fake news: tourists at the Brandenburg Gate were more likely to be charged with attacks on police than residents of poor districts, and more than half of those arrested were German citizens, not foreigners.

Wegner went on the offensive with racist demagogy, demanding to know the first names of suspects (which is not legal under German privacy laws). This was supposed to prove the violence was caused by “people with migrant backgrounds.” This orchestrated moral panic led 23 percent of voters to say that “security and order” was the decisive factor for them. The irony is that Giffey’s coalition was already throwing millions at the racist police — but the CDU wants even more.

A few numbers are not being reported in the corporate media. The first is that only 63 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, which is quite a low number for Berlin. The second is that 23 percent of adult residents of the city are not allowed to vote because they lack a German passport. Combine these two numbers, and the conservative “winner” got the support of roughly 13 percent of Berliners. This is capitalist “democracy” at its finest.

Die Linke, the Left Party, is in a permanent crisis. The Berlin branch was relieved that they “only” lost two points compared to 2021. This party raises many progressive demands — but they have also been in Berlin’s government for most of the last 20 years. The Senate that carried out a brutal austerity program in the mid-2000s — which led to the ongoing crisis of all city services — was led by the SPD and Die Linke’s predecessor, the PDS. That same Senate privatized hundreds of thousands of apartments, thus causing the housing crisis. More recently, the “left” senators have been going along with Giffey’s sabotage of the housing referendum and the constant expansion of the police.

Giffey has interpreted these results as a mandate to shift to the right: her recipe is even more repression, more highways, more deals with realty speculators. But the opposite is the case. The housing referendum showed broad support for drastic measures against finance capital. Kai Wegner is basically a lobbyist for property owners, and never would have won a direct election.

Yet the party that ambitiously calls itself “The Left” has tried to be in government at any price, and has actively refused to campaign for these popular demands. Working people in Berlin are frustrated, but Die Linke is a party that administers the capitalist status quo, and has no intention of leading protests. There are sectors in Die Linke who are serious about class struggle, such as the Neukölln branch. It is up to these sectors to lead a campaign against their party’s leadership to once again join a neoliberal and racist government coalition. 

Berlin has also been experiencing something of a strike wave — not on the level of those in France or Great Britain, but considerable for  this city. Teachers, sanitation workers, and public employees are showing that they have the power to shut down the city, because workers keep everything running. These struggles show that if we want the quality of life for the masses to improve, we don’t have to choose between racist demagogues and hapless government “socialists.” We need to fight for the working class to become an independent political force.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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