If you believe the hype, Berlin is a city of the left. A historical stronghold of the German workers’ movement, rooted in proletarian districts such as Lichtenberg and Wedding, it was the site of the 1918 November Revolution that overthrew the monarchy and almost established a socialist republic. Into the late twentieth century, as Soviet-aligned Communists like Friedrich Ebert Jr. – whose father helped drown the November Revolution in blood – built a new Germany in the East, and Social Democrats like Willy Brandt created a walled-off island of welfare-state capitalism in the West, the city retained this status, with plenty of room for anarchist squats, 24-hour dance clubs, and the accumulation of cultural capital that has served the place so well over the last few decades.
The exemption from military service granted to West Berlin’s inhabitants and an ample supply of cheap housing attracted a radical counter-cultural milieu that, though numerically always a small minority, exerted considerable influence on Berlin’s politics and culture. Most of the squats were forced to dissolve in the decade following reunification, and the city-state’s left-alternative scene became a shadow of its former self, but it continues to boast a remarkably active civil society (Berlin saw 12,744 protests between 2018 and mid-2020, an average of 14 per day). Even now, far-left street art remains ubiquitous in rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods like Neukölln and Kreuzberg.
Consequently, the city hews to the left of national electoral politics. Following a brief experiment with the Christian Democrats (CDU) in the 1990s, Berlin’s electorate returned to its traditional party of government, the Social Democrats (SPD) in 2001, and has renewed its mandate in every election since: first in an alliance with the post-Communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS, the forerunner to Die Linke), then with the CDU, and finally, since 2016, in a three-way coalition incorporating the Greens and Die Linke under the motto of ‘good governance’. Effectively, Berlin has been governed by the centre-left throughout its transformation from an economically moribund haven for the underemployed to a real estate developer’s playground.
The most recent coalition’s track record was nothing to write home about, but it could point to new schools, increased access to affordable child care, and, perhaps most impressively, a five-year rent cap that, though later overturned by a federal court, suggested the city government was serious about getting exploding housing costs under control in a city where 85% of the population are renters. Voters seemed to like it, and the coalition was re-elected in 2021 with 54% of the vote, while 59% cast their ballots in favour of a referendum authorizing the city to ‘expropriate’ large real estate firms and ‘socialize’ hundreds of thousands of housing units – a popular mandate most centre-left governments in Europe could only dream of.
The second coalition lasted for only a year, however, before a raft of voting irregularities in 2021 prompted the courts to invalidate the result and schedule new elections for 12 February 2023. Given the city government’s culpability in botching the vote, and the poor polling numbers for SPD mayor Franziska Giffey, voters were expected to punish the incumbent parties. Yet when the dust settled, their losses were surprisingly small: the Social Democrats took the hardest hit, registering their worst result ever in the city, while the CDU emerged as the clear winner, jumping from 18% to 28%. Nevertheless, the coalition still enjoyed the support of 49% of the electorate and seemed set to remain in office.
Giffey, however, had other plans. She announced her intention to give up her mayoral position and pursue a partnership with the CDU: the same arrangement over which Angela Merkel had presided for most of her sixteen-year tenure. The so-called ‘GroKo’ was deeply unpopular when it finally came to an end two years ago, and the rank-and-file have vowed to prevent its return. Yet assuming she gets her way, the decision will likely end up giving Giffey exactly what she wants. Charitably, the move could be interpreted as a sign of moral integrity – the Christian Democrats did win the election, after all. But Giffey, who resigned her post in the last federal government after it emerged that she plagiarized large parts of her PhD (along with, according to at least one former instructor, her Master’s thesis), is no paragon of virtue, and her rightward pivot was no parliamentary mea culpa. Rather, it was a sly manoeuvre intended to side-line critics within her own party while neutralizing that pesky housing referendum once and for all. Measured on her own terms, she snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
That Berlin’s outgoing mayor loathes the left, inside and outside her party, is no secret. The protégé of Berlin SPD right-wing grandee Heinz Buschkowsky, she was open about her preference for a centre-right coalition prior to the 2021 election. It was only due to pressure from the party base and her predecessor in the mayor’s office, Michael Müller, that the coalition with Die Linke continued in the first place. Now, though, extending its lifespan would mean coming to terms with its undeniable mandate to socialize the big real estate firms: something neither she nor the Greens had any intention of doing. The issue was delegated to a commission of experts that, much like the original Socialization Commission chaired some 100 years ago by Karl Kautsky, was designed to spend years deliberating until the public eventually moved on. Yet, having ditched her former partners, Giffey won’t even have to go through the motions – the CDU will take care of the problem for her. This will allow her to take up a more junior role in government until the public forgets about her latest scandal; at which point she will presumably return to the national stage.
Though the Greens and Die Linke are understandably dismayed by her decision, for the people of the city it looks like the impact will be minimal, at least for now. Negotiations between the parties will stretch into April, but based on what has leaked so far, at least some of the previous government’s initiatives – such as expanded bicycle lanes – will be retained. The CDU has also agreed to job guarantees for the city’s administrative staff, which will prevent it from implementing its plans to slim down the municipal bureaucracy. Thus, it looks like business as usual in the German capital, where the routine reshuffling of candidates has a limited effect on the country’s notoriously stable governance.
On the national level, the reshuffling gives the CDU under Merkel’s right-wing successor Friedrich Merz the chance to exercise a veto in the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament composed of appointed representatives from all 16 state governments. Theoretically, this could be used to block federal initiatives, but practically, the SPD and CDU remain the dominant parties in the Bundesrat and typically work out compromises in advance of major legislation. Whether Merz’s tough talk will change that remains to be seen.
Yet even if it won’t differ much in immediate policy, the new coalition says a lot about Berlin’s shifting demographics. A look at the electoral map shows the CDU winning a plurality in almost every district outside the urban core, where the Greens dominate, while the SPD and Die Linke managed to hang on to a few scattered strongholds and Alternative für Deutschland won in parts of the eastern periphery. Berlin thus appears to be catching up with the rest of Germany, where the urban centres are increasingly the domain of the professional middle classes and their party of choice, the Greens, while the suburbs are dominated by downwardly-mobile sections of the middle and working classes, who tend to cast their votes for the centre-right or their populist rivals. The two traditional parties of the left, the SPD and Die Linke, find themselves squeezed between these poles and unable to rely on stable voting blocs. Berlin long stood out as an exception to that rule, but if last month’s vote is any indication, this era may be coming to an end.
The sociologist Oliver Nachtwey has written that German society is undergoing a process of ‘regressive modernization’, whereby cultural liberalization and increased inclusion of women and minorities occurs alongside the hardening of class-based inequalities and declining social mobility for the lower segments of the population. This transformation can also be seen in the political arena, where the Greens are increasingly the object (and occasionally the subject) of American-style culture wars, with spats between them and the CDU erupting over electric cars and vegetarian meals in schools, obscuring their broad agreement on most major issues. In Berlin, this ‘hyperpolitical’ antagonism has centred on the government’s attempt to turn the Friedrichstrasse, a main thoroughfare in the city centre, into a pedestrian boulevard – a fitting hill to die on for a CDU looking to score points among disgruntled commuters and anyone else suspicious of change, however cosmetic.
For the left, the shifting winds in the capital can only be seen as a defeat. For the thousands of Berliners who spent months collecting signatures to get the 2021 referendum on the ballot and campaigning for its passage, it’s back to the drawing board. At the time, the referendum seemed to mark a watershed in the city’s approach to its spiralling rent problem and a breakthrough for the left wing of civil society. Yet paradoxically, even though the non-binding decision hinged entirely on parliament’s willingness to implement it, the only party that unequivocally advocated doing so, Die Linke, received a worse result in 2021 than it had in the previous elections. Last month, with the housing market as bad as ever and Giffey openly opposing socialization, the party’s tally declined even further, particularly in former strongholds like Marzahn. For years, Die Linke has sought to compensate for its losses among its traditional base in the East by picking up more supporters in the booming districts in the core – and not without some success. Nevertheless, on election day, thousands of them seemingly stopped caring about the measure, or lost faith that the party could do anything about it.
Read on: Benno Teschke, ‘Imperial Doxa from the Berlin Republic’, NLR 40.