Letter From Berlin Is Germany Ready for a Gay Chancellor?

Berlin's popular gay Mayor Klaus Wowereit has become a more powerful force in German politics since he was re-elected on Sunday. Berliners like him because he embodies the city's tolerant and cosmopolitan image. Media commentators are now speculating that he could even become chancellor one day. But the country's homosexual lobby group has its doubts.

Embracing your wife or husband for the cameras after winning an election is standard procedure for politicians, just like kissing babies. It was no different on Sunday for Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit who gave his partner Jörn Kubicki a firm, fond hug on stage at a Social Democrats meeting as party workers chanted his nickname: "Wowi, Wowi!"

Conservative challenger Friedbert Pflüger had tried unsuccessfully to make political capital out of Wowereit's homosexuality during the campaign, telling a rally: "Berlin deserves its own First Lady for a change!" The jibe didn't work. Pflüger's conservatives didn't have a chance, falling 2.5 percentage points to 21.3 percent. Wowereit's center-left SPD gained 1.1 point to 30.8 percent, winning him a second five-year term as top representative of Germany's largest city.

His policies weren't popular in his first five years. He cut wages in the public sector and slashed housing subsidies to tackle the city's staggering €60 billion debt, and he failed to make big inroads into the unemployment figures, still high at 17 percent.

Yet voters credited him with enhancing Berlin's image as a hip, tolerant, cultural city. He has wooed international film-makers to make movies in Berlin, and under his watch the city has increasingly become a magnet for artists, fashion designers, writers and high-profile exhibitions. Tourism is also doing well.

Wowereit, 52, something of a party animal who says he's always in a good mood, often used to be pictured boogying the night away at society bashes. He has since tried to cultivate a more serious image, but that hasn't stopped him from making guest appearances in the soap opera "Berlin, Berlin!" and the film comedy "Alles auf Zucker." He also regularly attends Berlin's Christopher Street Day gay pride parade.

For the last two years he has penned an official welcome to a fetishists' convention in Berlin attended by thousands of leather and rubber-clad S&M fans. Conservative politicians said he was contributing to a "moral degeneration." But Wowereit dismissed the critics as "small-minded" and said he was happy to have more tourists spending money in the cash-strapped city.

Now, after his second election victory, "Wowi" has said he wants to start taking on a bigger role in national politics. His supporters claim he has the makings of a chancellor. Commentators say his re-election has undoubtedly given him more clout in the SPD, which shares power in a "grand coalition" with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.

Politicians' private lives no big deal

German media are already speculating about the prospect of a homosexual at the helm of Germany. "Will Wowi Be the First Gay Chancellor?" asked mass circulation daily Bild in a banner headline on Tuesday.

It's true that homosexuality isn't a big deal in German politics. Wowereit sailed into office in 2001 despite outing himself during the campaign with the phrase: "I'm gay and that's a good thing!" The mayor of the northern port of Hamburg, conservative Ole von Beust, is gay, as is the leader of the opposition liberal Free Democrats, Guido Westerwelle.

German voters are less interested in their politicians' private lives than is the case in Britain or the United States. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was on his fourth wife and ex-foreign minister Joschka Fischer on his fifth, but hardly anyone batted an eyelid.

Nevertheless, Renate Rampf, spokeswoman for the German Federation of Lesbians and Gays, has her doubts whether Germany is ripe for a gay leader. "It's still a handicap. Many people wouldn’t want their political leader to be gay," she said. "It would be harder for a gay man or woman to become chancellor candidate than a heterosexual person with the same capabilities."

Rampf said Wowereit's emphatic and positive outing had contributed a lot to the general acceptance of homosexuality. But she said there was still a north-south divide in Germany with the liberal, Protestant north tending to be more tolerant than the conservative, Catholic south.

However, an opinion poll published earlier this month suggests Wowereit scores well nationwide. Richard Hilmer, director of the Infratest-dimap polling institute, said the mayor had come joint first with Brandenburg Premier Matthias Platzeck in a national survey of how Germans assess the political work of the country's 16 state premiers.

"But how Herr Wowereit would score as a candidate for chancellor is a different question," said Hilmer.

Too soon for Wowi

Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin's Free University, said: "German society has been transforming itself for a long time now and prejudice regarding sexual orientation is on the wane. Besides, people still strongly identify with parties rather than people."

He cited Merkel, Germany's first woman chancellor, as an example of how the country has changed. She is Protestant, childless and hails from the former communist east, and still managed to become nominated as candidate for the western, Catholic, male-dominated Christian Democrats. And she got elected, albeit by the narrowest of margins.

Regardless of whether the European Union's largest country is ready for a gay leader or not, the question is likely to be academic for the next eight years.

At the moment, the SPD's next candidate for chancellor in the 2009 election is almost certain to be its chairman Kurt Beck, a stout, avuncular bear of a man who couldn't be more different from the cosmopolitan Wowereit. Yet he's equally skilled at winning elections -- although he does it with congenial back-slapping at wine festivals in his native Rhineland-Palatinate rather than by welcoming Hollywood stars and fetishists.

"Wowereit would get his chance in 2014 at the earliest," said Neugebauer.

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