Berlin’s Repeat Elections and the Social Democrats’ Dilemma
Voting on 12 February will determine whether the city continues to shift away from neoliberalism or tacks back to the right
On 12 February, the September 2021 elections for the Berlin House of Representatives and district councils will be repeated due to irregularities in several constituencies, a little over a year after the September 2021 election resulted in a clear majority for the incumbent “red-green-red” coalition between the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens, and the socialist party Die Linke that has governed the German capital since 2016.
Nevertheless, the SPD was initially reluctant to continue as part of the voter-approved coalition. Its leading candidate and current mayor of Berlin, Franziska Giffey, originally favoured a coalition with the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). However, her plans were thwarted by the Greens and by internal resistance within the SPD, leading ultimately to an extension of the “red-green-red” coalition in the Senate.
The 2021 elections also coincided with the city-wide referendum “expropriate Deutsche Wohnen und Co.”, one of the major private landlords in Berlin. A majority of 59.1percent voted for the initiative, which would allow the expropriation of private housing companies that own more than 3,000 apartments in the city. The vast majority of Berliners thus gave the new Senate a clear mandate to act. From the outset, however, the new government was put under strain by the fact that the SPD had openly opposed the referendum in the lead-up to the vote, while Franziska Giffey has made no secret of her reluctance to implement expropriation during her tenure.
The SPD has pushed for the construction of new housing rather than implementing the referendum’s results, while the Greens were still on the fence when it came to expropriation. Only Die Linke fully supported the referendum, but struggled to find an answer to the question of how its demands could be met in the face of massive resistance from politicians and the real estate lobby.
Of course, the vote on 12 February is merely a repeat election. However, as Heraclitus once said, no man ever steps in the same river twice. The political landscape has changed dramatically since the September 2021 elections. The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and its consequences have further fuelled inflation, while energy and food prices have skyrocketed. For many, the crisis is hitting close to home and poses an existential threat to their livelihood, despite the relief packages offered by the federal government.
New Year’s Eve: Much Ado about Nothing
At the beginning of January, however, escalating social problems were overshadowed by discussion of the events in Berlin on New Year’s Eve, whereby the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) attempted to make “integration” and “domestic security” key issues in the election campaign at both the federal and state level. With CDU leader Friedrich Merz repeatedly drawing on racist stereotypes and referring to young men from migrant backgrounds as “little pashas” in TV talk shows, the Berlin CDU evidently wanted a piece of the action. When the CDU group in the House of Representatives requested that the first names of suspects with German passports taken into custody on New Year’s Eve be made public, the racism of the party’s rhetoric became apparent, publicly confirming yet again that the CDU has shifted to the right since Angela Merkel’s departure.
If the CDU thought it could win back voters from the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in this way, current polls show that it was mistaken. This should come as no surprise, since right-populist parties tend to benefit when established parties stray into “their” discursive terrain. That said, the New Year’s Eve discussion blew over once evidence emerged disproving the notion that the riots were primarily caused by an “integration problem”.
Now that the dust has settled, it has become clear that the main questions polarizing the city have changed very little since the last election. There are hardly any new issues on the table and no new candidates, since it is, after all, a repeat election. Additionally, the new Senate has only been in office for just over a year, meaning that the scope for enacting political change has been quite limited.
Successes and Contradictions
Franziska Giffey moved to replace the SPD’s third coalition partner, Die Linke, with the FDP in the wake of the 2021 election — a move that was blocked by the Greens, as well as by resistance from within Giffey’s own party.
Two central axes of political polarization subsequently emerged in Berlin. The first concerned socio-ecological transformation, which symbolically is strongly linked with the city’s transport policy, a matter that has created tension between the Greens and the SPD. In this sense, a middle-class coalition partner such as the FDP would be very helpful from Giffey’s perspective.
The second axis concerned social ownership, an issue that was most recently highlighted by the Deutsche Wohnen referendum. From the mayor’s point of view, Die Linke is the antagonist here, while the Greens have tended towards cautious ambivalence. Replacing Die Linke as a coalition partner with a party running on a radical free-market platform would certainly be one way to solve the problem in the short term.
Against the backdrop of this conflict, Giffey was forced to form a red-green-red coalition again at the end of 2021. In return for its status as coalition partner, Die Linke had to relinquish its construction and urban planning portfolio, which was taken over by the former Interior Senator, Andreas Geisel from the SPD.
What followed was anything if not surprising. The Senate managed to achieve a number of clear successes during its short period in office. In 2022, Berlin took in more refugees than in 2015 and 2016 combined. Providing them with housing and maintenance was a huge challenge, one which Berliners, along with the Senate administration, dealt with seemingly effortlessly.
“Housing First” programmes and similar initiatives for homeless people were consistently implemented. In light of the energy crisis, the Senate imposed a moratorium on rent increases for publicly-controlled housing, with large public housing associations following suit. The 29-euro monthly ticket, valid for the entire Berlin transport network, was made available for an extended period, as was a 9-euro version for those with limited socioeconomic means.
Moreover, the panel of experts tasked with assessing the implementation of the Deutsche Wohnen referendum stated in their interim report in late 2021 that the initiative was feasible in principle. The panel proposed to continue to convene until summer 2023 in order to discuss any unresolved issues, after which the new Senate would be able to take action.
Who Will Govern the Capital?
In Berlin, where a number of parties stand neck-and-neck in the polls, even small changes in the election results could have a major impact — at least in theory. If, for example, the CDU gains 1.5 percent more votes than in 2021 and the SPD loses 1.5 percent, the CDU will suddenly be the party with the most votes — that is, unless the Greens gain one percent on their 2021 share of the vote, in which case they will come out ahead.
Of course, the polls cannot reliably predict such small but significant deviations, so we can only speculate about which of the three parties will come out on top on 12 February. This makes the question of what might happen after the election all the more interesting. Current polls suggest that there will only be minor changes in the election results. Far more pressing is the question of which parties will form and lead the new Senate.
The question of who will be mayor depends only indirectly on which party achieves the best election results. This is particularly true in the case of the CDU, which is set to gain the most votes, but is unlikely to govern as long as the incumbent Senate’s ruling coalition of the SPD, the Greens, and Die Linke can defend its majority. The SPD is unlikely to be enthusiastic about entering into a coalition as a junior partner with the CDU.
As it stands, a CDU-led coalition would only be possible in partnership with two other parties. Since the Greens and Die Linke in Berlin have ruled out the possibility of a coalition with the CDU, Berlin chairman Kai Wegner can lead only through a coalition with the SPD and the FDP.
Should the Greens win the election, they will almost certainly seek to preserve the current Senate under the leadership of Bettina Jarasch.
The composition of an SPD-led coalition is comparatively unclear. Should it receive the highest number of votes — or the second-highest after the CDU — the SPD could continue the current red-green-red coalition. Equally possible is that it might again seek to replace Die Linke with the FDP.
The second option would have the advantage of the same coalition governing at both the state and federal level, but a similar attempt to restructure the coalition already failed once in 2021. On the other hand, if the SPD receives the second-highest number of votes after the Greens (but ahead of the CDU), Giffey would only be able to remain mayor by forming a coalition with the CDU and the FDP. For those who know Giffey, it is clear that this would be a strong argument for such a coalition.
For Die Linke, the options for leadership are clearer. As things stand, they could only take power in coalition with the SPD and the Greens, regardless of who becomes mayor. It remains clear, however, that the implementation of the Deutsche Wohnen referendum — and with it, a change in trajectory away from the free market and towards social ownership — depends entirely on Die Linke’s performance in the election. The referendum will only be implemented if Die Linke makes it into government.
Giffey’s Double Bind
The SPD and its mayor find themselves in a paradoxical situation: their policies have been fairly successful at the state level, but primarily due to the social policies that have largely been shaped by Die Linke senators Klaus Lederer, Lena Kreck, and Katja Kipping. These successes would not have been possible with Giffey’s former partner of choice, the FDP. For this reason, it is precisely the incumbent red-green-red constellation that is likely to have a positive impact on the Senate parties’ election results.
The coalition will most likely retain its majority in the upcoming election. Nevertheless, it is by no means certain that the current coalition will survive.
Two things are certain: first, if Die Linke is replaced in the Senate by the FDP (or — far less likely — by the CDU), the implementation of the referendum will be off the table, and the aforementioned social policy successes are unlikely to be maintained in the long term. Secondly, the composition of the future government depends not only on who receives the most votes, but also on how many votes are won by Die Linke, the social policy engine of the Senate.
Translation by Sonja Hornung and Rose Wellbrook for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
About the author
Andreas Thomsen is the Deputy Head of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Department of Regional Coordination in Berlin.