Arrogant, Withdrawn, Overstretched: Berlin Mayor's Time Has Come - And Gone

A Commentary By and

Klaus Wowereit wanted Berlin's new international airport to be his political legacy. Instead it could cost him his job. Even if he isn't in imminent danger, his days as the city's mayor are likely numbered.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowreit wears a hardhat as he visits the construction site of the city's new BER airport. Zoom
DPA

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowreit wears a hardhat as he visits the construction site of the city's new BER airport.

There is something tragic about Klaus Wowereit's public appearances these days. He is unable to admit his share of responsibility for the trouble Germany's capital city is in because of the debacle surrounding its new airport. Instead of simply admitting mistakes or saying something appropriate about political responsibility, Mayor Wowereit, who is at the center of the BER airport crisis, tries to brush things off with flippant comments.

"Now Berlin reality has caught up with me," mass-circulation Bild newspaper reported the mayor as saying after news emerged that the airport's opening would be delayed for a fourth time. Then he treated himself to a glass of white wine.

It's typical behavior for Wowereit. For a long time, Wowereit, known for his wit and penchant for glamor, was the right mayor for Berlin. In his more than 11 years in office there were long periods where he seemed to fit the city like no other politician could. As mayor, an office that has a status equivalent to that of a governor in the city-state, he fostered an image of a Berlin that was open and casual -- a valuable trademark. But political projects weren't his thing. Maybe the project was doomed with him as its chief supervisor. The fourth postponement of the opening date has exposed his failure for all to see.

Popularity Ratings Crash

Arrogant, withdrawn and overstretched: Wowereit's popularity ratings have crashed, with two-thirds of Berlin residents sharing the view that he isn't doing a good job running the city. Many within his own party, the center-left Social Democrats, are distancing themselves from the mayor, and he is losing the public's respect quickly with the manner in which he is desperately clinging to power. "At this point, his resignation is a question of political hygiene," Berlin daily Tagesspiegel, which has generally given Wowereit favorable coverage in the past, wrote in an editorial this week. Meanwhile, the left-wing Berliner Zeitung newspaper wrote: "Wowereit is trying to save his neck, and is doing so by ever-shabbier means."

The response to the new airport delay could hardly be more disastrous for the mayor, who is determined to remain in office. But even if he doesn't appear to have registered that fact yet, his time is over. His party is only delaying his fall because it can't come up with a suitable successor. Still, that hasn't stopped senior Social Democrats from discussing the post-Wowereit era.

"It is clear to the party that Wowereit won't survive until the end of the current term," said one influential Social Democrat. "The SPD needs to consider now how it can manage a transition. In order for that to happen, it needs to align both the left and conservative wings of the Berlin SPD." Meanwhile, a senior party member said: "For years Wowereit gave us a boost. But now that's totally gone." Indeed, speaking to Wowereit's supporters within the party, you quickly get the impression Wowereit's days are numbered.

A Legacy Colored by Recent Failures

That's not just a problem for the SPD, but also for Wowereit personally. The longer he clings to office, the more likely that his political legacy will be colored by his recent failures. The list of shortcomings is pretty long. A number of issues could cloud Wowereit's legacy.

Take rents in Berlin, for example. Berlin was long considered to be a paradise for renters with low incomes. But for several years, rents have been rising dramatically in many German cities, including Berlin. In contrast to more prosperous German cities like Munich, Stuttgart or Frankfurt, where rent levels are significantly higher yet, incomes are markedly lower in the capital. The government of the city of Berlin has so far failed to produce a strategy for countering this trend, and this is starting to upset voters.

Chaotic municipal administration is also a problem. The city's administration is notoriously overstretched. In recent years, the situation has gotten worse due to redundancies. Workers at youth welfare offices say they are chronically overworked, and the fire department recently warned its understaffing had become an emergency. Finally, a student loan office that handles half the applications for such aid for those studying in Berlin recently had to close for months in order to deal with a backlog because it didn't have enough staff to process them. Now thousands of students haven't received their money.

Then there's the parliament of the city-state of Berlin. People are fond of poking fun at problems in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition, comprised of the conservative Christian Democrats and the business-friendly Free Democrats, but the situation in the Berlin city government is far worse. Government ministers in Berlin are called senators, and recently they have had trouble keeping their jobs. The justice senator had to go only a few days after taking office. His colleague, the economics senator, didn't last a year. And Interior Minister Frank Henkel has also been criticized for missteps made by agencies under his jurisdiction in their handling of the national investigation into the neo-Nazi terror cell "National Socialist Underground" (NSU) which is believed responsible for the deaths of 10 people. Meanwhile, the city's finance and building senators, Ulrich Nussbaum and Michael Müller, are constantly sparring. And what did Wowereit say at the end of his coalition's first year? "We're proud of what we have achieved so far."

Finally, there's the airport. It was supposed to be something like a legacy for Wowereit. He had prided himself on the project for years, and as the supervisory board chairman of the project, the SPD politician also liked to take responsibility for it -- at least as long as things were going well. However, the mayor changed his tune when, in June 2010, the first planned opening date for BER had to be postponed. And as three other opening dates had to be cancelled, the mayor quickly dropped the notion of political responsibility. But the situation won't get any easier for Wowereit, not even after he resigned as head of the supervisory board on Monday.

A Lame-Duck Mayor

Wowereit is a lame-duck mayor now. The only reason he's still in office is that no one has mustered up the political power to force him out yet.

It is unlikely the Christian Democrats will call for his head because, despite passable numbers in polls, they are afraid the coalition government could fall apart and that they might lose out in a new election. Given that the party's leader in government, Henkel, has been damaged by the NSU scandal and that the Christian Democrats in the city are currently in a state of disarray, the CDU isn't in the strongest of positions.

Meanwhile, in the SPD, no potential successor to Wowereit has dared to come forward yet. None of them is powerful enough to take Wowereit on alone. They will first have to come to an agreement on who will do it. But can they succeed at that?

For now, Wowereit will carry on as mayor, and focus on self-defense. He even hired a lawyer this week to deny reports that he knew weeks in advance about the latest delay in the airport's opening. "This statement is untrue," lawyer Christian Schertz said in statement on Tuesday. The attorney's usual clients are stars from the entertainment industry.

That, too, seems fitting.

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