Signs of the times

Over 200,000 placards line Berlin’s streets this election season, put up by eager volunteers or the candidates themselves. As the starting whistle blew on the campaign back in August, we joined party members for the postering ritual.

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An SPD volunteer hangs a poster of Berlin candidate Eva Högl the night of the campaign kickoff. Photo by Ruth Schneider

Even in the digital age, political parties rely on posters as the surest way to reach voters. Over 200,000 placards line Berlin’s streets this election season, put up by eager volunteers or the candidates themselves. As the starting whistle blew on the campaign back in August, Malte Rohwer-Kahlmann joined party members for the postering ritual.

“These old lanterns are always crumbling,” says Astrid Hollmann, as she rubs tiny pieces of rubble out of her eyes. It’s a mild August Saturday evening. Next to her, on the ladder she holds with her left hand, stands 59-year-old Peter Fäßler. Pliers stick out of the back pocket of his saggy jeans. He’s got a piece of cable in his mouth as he fumbles to tie a cardboard poster to the street lantern. Hollmann and Fäßler are SPD militants. Tonight, they have volunteered to put up some 30 out of the 47,000 posters the party is planning to hang around the city.

Every four years, on a Saturday exactly seven weeks from the Bundestagswahl, volunteers from all parties meet up to prepare for the action: it’s postering night! Officially, they’re supposed to wait until 12am Sunday to start spreading their political gospel. In reality, a lot of the action goes down well before midnight. Since it’s a first-come, first-served game and all parties that have filed the paperwork can participate, it makes sense to start early to grab the best spots. So at 9pm on August 5, Mitte’s Münzstraße is already covered with the face of SPD candidate Eva Högl. On nearby Schönhauser Allee, two fortysomething Free Democrats (FDP) are busy adding their own candidate’s portrait to the cityscape. In a rented DriveNow convertible with a small stepladder on the back seat, they hop up the avenue, stopping at every lamppost in a well-coordinated drive-hang-go duet. They started at 9:30pm and, at this tempo, it shouldn’t take them long to cover their 4km patch. Taking a small break, they ask a passerby to take a picture of them under the poster they just put up: a black-and-white picture of candidate Christoph Meyer with the slogan “Tegelretter” (Tegel saviour) that hangs less than two metres above the ground. Most parties prefer hanging the posters high so that they don’t get stolen or torn down, but the duo isn’t worried: “We’re a small party, we have a small ladder,” they joke. All in all, the FDP is planning to put up 8000 posters across Berlin.

The SPD machine

Hollmann and Fäßler indeed have a taller ladder. The two are part of a well-oiled machine by which hundreds of SPD volunteers will put up their party’s posters. Fäßler is responsible for overseeing the collective effort around Rosenthaler Straße: assigning teams to streets, ensuring enough ladders and other equipment are at hand, pre-sorting posters and cable ties. He also rented a station wagon, which he’s now driving down an empty side street at walking speed. The ladder that stretches from the back to the front of the car rattles in sync with the cobblestones beneath as Fäßler and Hollmann search for the right spot. Street lanterns with road signs on them are off limits. So are traffic lights, trees and “posterfree zones” specified by the neighbourhood (a designation applied, for example, to the lanterns around Charlottenburg’s Savignyplatz or the area in front of the Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg).

You hang up a poster and all of a sudden politics become visible. It’s like an analogue Facebook post.

“You hang up a poster and all of a sudden politics become visible,” marvels Hollmann. She darts across the road to the car and grabs some more cable ties out of the open boot. “It’s like an analogue Facebook post,” she adds. When she first joined the SPD in 2007, she remembers, she couldn’t wait for the first election, so she could finally go plakatieren. She enjoys the togetherness of it, she says. Fäßler isn’t into small talk, but a boyish sparkle in his eyes gives away that he’s having fun as well.

The two climb up many more lanterns that night, often debating how high their poster should hang or which direction it should face. After three hours and 30 posters tightly fastened, they’re done. “That’s it,” says Fäßler and lights a cigarillo. “What a shame… it’s over again,” Hollmann sighs. “But I’ll go to sleep tonight with the good feeling that I’ve done something for democracy.” She ran for office in the local Berlin elections last year, campaigned hard, but eventually lost to the Green candidate. In four years’ time, she wants to try again.

A few blocks away, Eva Högl herself is out on the streets. “I always participate in this, it’s part of running for office,” says the Berlin SPD candidate and incumbent MP for Mitte. The 48-year-old is out with her husband Jörg in their black Opel, a stack of posters and an empty beer crate in the back. At one point, a drunk man stumbles down the street and stops in front of the couple as they’re mounting a poster with Högl’s face on it. He looks at the poster, then at Högl, then again at the poster. She sees an opportunity to engage with a potential voter. “Good evening,” she starts out. A long, awkward silence ensues, before the man stumbles on into the night. Undaunted, the Högls resume the job – they have chosen a pole right next to a portable toilet. She holds the ladder with one hand and pinches her nose with the other, turning away from the stench: “It smells of shit here!” exclaims the SPD candidate, suddenly immune to the street charm of postering.

The cost of publicity

The next morning, Berlin wakes up to a forest of beaming faces and programmatic platitudes. The FDP’s black-and-white photography looks quite slick and to the point with their newfound Tegel-saving mission, and the AfD’s provocative “Burqas? We prefer bikinis!” is memorable, if nothing else. But overall the bigger parties’ posters reflect the entire election campaign: boring, uninspired, restrained.

Meanwhile, few of their smaller counterparts can afford as widespread a campaign – printing is expensive, and hanging requires human resources they don’t always have, especially in the middle of summer holidays. The larger parties will also put up some 2600 roadside billboards (aka Wesselmänner, after the company that owns the majority of them), at a cost of around €300 each. “That’s too much…” says Sahin Azbak of Menschliche Welt, whose 520 members mostly finance their election campaign out of their own pockets. “One billboard in the whole of Berlin would be lost – and 10 already cost €3000. We don’t have that much.”

The established parties don’t have these concerns. They get part of their election campaign refinanced with tax money: €0.85 per year for every vote up to four million, 70 cents for every vote over that. But parties need at least 0.5 percent of the vote to qualify – which a lot of smaller ones don’t have. And how could they, without the money to advertise on a larger scale?

“It’s not a fair competition, we have no chance. It absolutely is a rigged game,” says Beni Richter. He’s part of the Bergpartei (see page 9), an anarchist-leaning party with around 250 members that runs only in Berlin. Passing the 0.5 percent hurdle (around 220,000 votes) is more than unrealistic for Richter and his crew. But that doesn’t keep them from trying.

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Bergpartei’s Beni Richter in front of his party’s handiwork: “Don’t let the scene get cleaned up.” Photo by German Palomeque

Bergpartei: The DIY way

Instead of generic electoral ads, which Richter finds “boring, text-heavy and empty”, the Bergpartei hand-paints its own signs, turning their irreverent messages into massive, one-of-a-kind pieces of electoral street art.

Their 10 giant wooden billboards are mostly composed of two pieces, leaned together to form a little hut. “It was our idea to make habitable billboards, so bums could sleep under them,” says Richter. And indeed, during the campaign for the local Berlin elections last year, a guy slept under one of the Bergpartei’s signs at Moritzplatz, and was sad when they had to take it down eventually.

The party uses “recycled materials”, as Richter says with a satisfied grin. For stuff they need to buy, they throw donation parties at their headquarters, Friedrichshain’s Crack Bellmer club. That’s also where the construction and painting takes place. They project their motifs onto the wood, tracing the outlines before colouring them in. It’s a lot of work – one day per billboard – and in a loosely organised party full of “autonomous individuals”, it’s unpredictable how many helping hands show up on any day.

As in previous elections, they’ve fallen behind schedule this year. While the other parties were plastering the city with their messages, the Bergpartei was still pondering over paperwork and painting. Richter spent the following weekend at a festival, which he thought would delay things further. But he returned to a big surprise: a group of party members had rented a van and put up the billboards while he was away.

He and a friend take an evening bike ride to check out the results. On Frankfurter Allee’s median strip, Richter has a laughing fit. He’s rolling around in the grass, pointing at the billboard in front of him. “A snail…” he manages to get out between bursts of giggles. “With whiskers!”

The billboard reads “Small But Slow” and has a snail painted on it, with a trail of fire behind it. And, yes, it also has whiskers. Richter is happy they finally managed to wedge their ads between all the big parties’. He seems proud. It may not have the biggest impact but they did it, once again. With no big money behind them.

But aren’t analogue posters in the digital age a waste of money anyway? Helmut Metzner of the FDP has over 30 years of experience organising election campaigns and for him, posters remain absolutely vital. Yes, he says, social media ads have become important – but you can’t reach everyone on Facebook. The same goes for TV and radio ads. “But, as long as you leave the house, you can’t escape posters,” he says. There’s also an element of peer pressure. “When all your competitors have posters out there, you don’t want to miss out.”

Big parties and their Berlin ads

SPD: 47,000 posters, 700 billboards

CDU: 50,000 posters, 1000 billboards

Die Linke: 42,250 posters, 300 billboards

FDP: 8000 posters, 350 billboards