Letter from Berlin Popular Mayor Set for Easy Re-Election on Sunday
Berlin has pressing economic and social problems and its mayor, Klaus Wowereit, has done little to solve them over the last decade. But the Social Democrat who has helped turn the "poor but sexy" city into a major cultural hub looks sure to be re-elected -- because Berliners like him.
Berlin's unemployment rate is twice the German national average, its schools are ranked among the worst in the country, the local commuter rail system is notoriously unreliable, cars are set ablaze almost nightly by unknown arsonists and the city is being overwhelmed by tourists and, worse, real estate investors who are making rents unaffordable for ordinary people.
One might think that a mayor who has presided over all these problems, and often seems to shrug them off, would be voted out of office at the first opportunity. But no, Klaus Wowereit, who has governed the German capital for the past decade, is all but certain to be re-elected on Sunday for a third five-year term.
His victory in Berlin, one of Germany's 16 regional states, may even boost his chances of being nominated as the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) candidate for the chancellorship in the 2013 general election, although he seems a tad too phlegmatic too take on the challenge.
How does he do it? The simple answer is that Berliners have warmed to Wowereit, 57, who famously outed himself as homosexual in 2001 by telling a party conference: "I'm gay, and that's a good thing." He has a laid-back charm and an easygoing, quick-witted cheek that chimes with locals.
Wowereit, Berlin born and bred, evidently has the "Berliner Schnauze," or "Berlin Snout," as the brash brand of local humor is known.
Campaigning around the trendy Prenzlauer Berg district one Tuesday in August, he came across a school group from northern Germany. "Where are you sleeping?" he asked one tall, pimply adolescent. "In the hostel. My bed is totally disgusting," the youth replied.
Wowereit looked surprised for an instant, then said: "Never mind, you don't look like you're in bed that often." The group burst out laughing.
During a recent campaign visit to a shopping mall in eastern Berlin, he walked up to two young women gorging themselves on huge portions of ham, cheese and pineapple on toast in a restaurant, inspected the plates and said with a grin: "Well that portion's not too small, is it?"
While he was visiting a Berlin company that makes eye drops, the firm's personnel manager indirectly criticized him by saying it was hard to attract qualified workers from other parts of the country because of Berlin's education system and lack of childcare facilities. "We're not that bad when it comes to nurseries," Wowereit retorted calmly. "Perhaps you'll just have to try harder next time."
Wowereit may have done little for public services, but he is credited with helping to turn Berlin into one of Europe's top cultural hubs over the last decade, and never misses an opportunity to attract movie makers to the city. He came up with the city's famous "poor but sexy" tag, gained a reputation for being something of a party animal and once famously welcomed rubber-clad fetishists to Berlin.
His standing is such that the SPD hasn't even bothered to come up with much of a manifesto. Wowereit himself is their program. The whole city has been covered in posters featuring the native Berliner holding hands with a granny, or having his face bitten by a crocodile glove puppet in a child's hand. His campaign slogan is "Understanding Berlin" -- that's not much of a vision, but Wowereit doesn't appear to need one.
His challengers lack his charisma. Renate Künast, the Green Party candidate long hailed as his most viable opponent, has campaigned hard to outline strategies for education reform and climate-friendly urban renewal, but the simple fact is that most Berliners don't seem to care. Her opinion poll ratings have fallen and the Greens may now end up coming third behind Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats.
It must be a bitter pill to swallow for Künast, co-leader of her party's national parliamentary group. Last autumn, when she announced her candidacy, the Greens were riding so high in voter surveys that she seemed to have a good chance of ousting Wowereit. Now polls put the Greens in Berlin at just below 20 percent, behind the CDU with 21 percent and hopelessly short of Wowereit's SPD at over 30 percent.
Pirates in Parliament
The most likely outcome on Sunday is that Wowereit will be re-elected and will ditch the Left Party, his junior coalition partner for the last 10 years, opting instead for an alliance with the Greens. The Left Party, which has its roots in the communist party that ruled East Germany, has seen its support slip due in part to to recent controversies including last month's refusal by some of its politicians to stand for a minute's silence to honor the victims of the Berlin Wall. Its national leaders, Gesine Lötzsch and Klaus Ernst, were also criticized for sending effusive congratulations to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro on the occasion of his 85th birthday. They said Cuba set an example "for many nations in the world," adding:
"You can look back proudly on your life of battles and successful action at the head of the Cuban revolution," they wrote in the letter.
The Pirate Party, meanwhile, representing Internet activists calling for copyright reform, better privacy protection, the free exchange of knowledge and more direct democracy, looks set to enter a German regional parliament for the first time on Sunday. Opinion polls have put them above the 5 percent threshold needed to gain seats in parliament.
The SPD's expected victory, the latest in a series of regional election wins for the party this year, is likely to be interpreted as a further blow to Merkel's conservatives, increasingly divided and under fire as a result of the euro crisis.