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  • “What have you done to my Berlin?”: Political chaos and exploding aquariums


“What have you done to my Berlin?”: Political chaos and exploding aquariums

Guest politics columnist Joel Dullroy is back in Berlin after a winter away and wonders what's become of the city since the last election.

Activists from Last Generation march in solidarity after German police raided their headquarters and shut down their website in late May. Photo: IMAGO / A. Friedrichs

Berliners, you’ve got some explaining to do. I go travelling for half a year and come back to this mess? The Christian Democrats have taken charge of the city, climate change protesters are being treated like terrorists, rents have gone up yet again. A falafel sandwich costs €5. And you blew up the aquarium! I can’t even trust you with the pets.

I know it’s not all your fault, especially if you’re among the more than 20% of residents who can’t vote. Even most of those who can and did vote aren’t to blame. Berlin’s February city-state election outcome was hardly democratic. New mayor Kai Wegner’s CDU-SPD coalition won just 46.6% of the vote. That’s not a mandate to do anything. Thanks to electoral system magic, they gained 86 of the 159 seats in the parliament – enough to take power, even while only representing a minority. The last time the CDU ran Berlin was from 1991 to 2001. Old punks say things were cooler in the 1990s; maybe having conservatives back in power will rekindle Berliners’ fading rebellious tendencies.

Organisers from Klimaneustart 2030 were left shocked and disappointed after the failure of the Klimareferendum. Photo: IMAGO / Emmanuele Contini

How did this happen? Have Berliners really become so much more conservative? A little bit, yes. The CDU gained 10% more votes since the 2021 election. And more than 400,000 people turned out to reject a referendum calling for tougher laws to address climate change. Are you surprised? Did you think decades of gentrification wouldn’t have a political effect? That entitled car owners would sit back while pro-oxygen elites restrict their right to pollute? But even the reactionary voter surge doesn’t explain the election outcome. Another mayor was possible – mathematically, at least.

I know it’s not all your fault, especially if you’re among the more than 20% of residents who can’t vote.

From 2016 to 2023, Berlin was run by a progressive coalition between the SPD, the Greens and die Linke. They were a squabbling throuple, but they did manage to paint a few more bicycle lanes and cap rental prices – until Germany’s highest court ruled that the idea was too good to be true. The three parties were losing popularity, but in February, they still collectively won 49% of the vote and 90 seats in parliament – enough to carry on. But one member was sick of polyamory.

The Berlin SPD are almost ideologically indistinguishable from the CDU. They’ve governed Berlin together many times in the past, usually with the SPD on top. After this election, when CDU leader Kai Wegner came calling, 55% stronger than before, the SPD’s Franziska Giffey didn’t hesitate to roll over. Why? Because she was likely to lose her job as mayor anyway – the Greens wanted to claim that office. By submitting to the CDU, the SPD only had to share control of state ministries with one other party instead of two.

Rather than enact the will of the greatest share of voters, Giffey chose to cling to her ever-shrinking realm of power. Even many SPD members didn’t want this outcome: 46% of them voted against partnering with the CDU at their party conference. But Giffey isn’t afraid to make unpopular decisions. She’s a conviction politician – her conviction being that she’s always right. As a result, she’s led her party to its worst ever outcome, and demoted herself from mayor to economy minister.

SPD’s Franziska Giffey and CDU’s Kai Wegner signed the coalition agreement back in April. Photo: IMAGO / Metodi Popow

But the February election didn’t have to happen at all. It was a rerun ordered by Berlin’s constitutional court, which reviewed the September 2021 election and found it to be flawed. That vote was held the same day as the Berlin marathon. There were long queues, polling stations ran out of ballot papers, staff photocopied ballots, and some stations closed late.

Did you think decades of gentrification wouldn’t have a political effect?

Was the original September election, which precipitated this madness, really so flawed? I read the court documents, and I have my doubts. Only 100 written complaints were filed. Judges cited media articles about the ‘Chaos Wahl’ as evidence, without questioning their accuracy. Using guesswork, they estimated that maybe 30,000 Berliners could have been affected by problems – that’s just 1.6% of all 1.8 million voters.

Instead of recontesting only the 14 parliamentary seats that were possibly compromised, the judges ordered a complete city-wide re-election, costing €39 million. There were almost no media reports analysing or critiquing the court’s decision. The narrative of Berlin’s incompetence was too easy to swallow and regurgitate. And the opposition CDU benefited from public anger at having to vote again.

Berlin’s new coalition could be trying to reverse a referendum protecting the city’s beloved Tempelhofer Feld, led by the group 100% Tempelhofer Feld. Photo: IMAGO / Jürgen Held

So thanks to a questionable and provocative court decision, and a desperate SPD leader, Berlin now has a minority-elected government that is ignoring the outcome of one referendum (Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen) and trying to reverse another (100% Tempelhofer Feld). It’s not a good democratic look for the capital of Germany, the power centre of the European Union that likes to scold other countries for their electoral insufficiencies.

By Berlin’s next scheduled election in 2026, the electoral conditions will be very different: many international residents will hopefully have become Germans under relaxed citizenship laws. Will the CDU somehow magically defy market logic and make rents decrease, save the city from impending drought, welcome foreigners and win us over as voters? I’m not sure I can bear to stick around to find out. But if I do leave, can you at least promise to take care of the fish?

  • Joel Dullroy is the co-founder and co-host of Radio Spaetkauf, Berlin’s English news podcast.