Last night’s Berlin election results make one thing clear: the era of the Volksparteien, the mainstream parties which once represented the vast majority of citizens – the SPD for the workers, the CDU, the middle classes – are long, long behind us. The SPD’s Michael Müller will keep his job as “governing mayor” but has little to celebrate. His party’s result (22 percent) was pitiful. Both the SPD and their conservative partners in the so-called große Koalition that has run the city for the last five years, Angela Merkel’s CDU, took even heavier losses. A massive thumbs down for the status quo that has been running Berlin and Germany.
Where have the voters run to? Primarily to the leftwing Die Linke and, of course, the Alternative für Deutschland, the right-wing populists who made off with an unprecidented 14 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the once oh-so-revolutionary Pirate Party has withered away to obscurity. They didn’t even reach the 5 percent threshold to get into parliament.
But what of the AfD? Berlin party boss Georg Pazderski was positively glowing during the post-results discussion on RBB TV, permitted for the first time to talk with the big boys and girls after an election. Pazderski tried to sneak the topic of refugees into the conversation, but the moderator told him that that was a national issue, “please tell us what local issues you will focus on”. To which he answered, “Security, education and helping Berliners buy their own homes,” sounding a lot like the CDU of old. The xenophobia, homophobia and and all-round reactionary nature of the party was out of sight. Worryingly, the AfD seems headed for a semblance of “respectibility”, a political force with staying power. Demonstrations outside their party headquarters and calling them Nazis won’t make them and their supporters disappear. The real fears of real people put them in power and we “progressive cosmopolitan Berliners”, whether we like it or not, are going to have to talk with them and address their fears constructively, in the Berlin Parliament and in the media and elsewhere. Trying to shut them out of the political dialogue will only add fuel to the flames of resentment and frustration simmering beneath their half-way “respectable” facade.
Ironically, thanks to the AfD’s pillaging of the CDU camp, Berlin is almost certain to get the real left-wing government it deserves, a red-red-green team of SPD, Die Linke and Greens (who both scored 15 percent), reflecting the lasting strength of both the traditional left in eastern areas and the eco-left in places like Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Mitte.
What can we expect from this configuration? The first priority should be affordable housing. Voters are demanding aggressive action on this front. Key pillars could be massive investment in affordable social housing and limiting legal tricks like the Modernisierungsumlage – which allow landlords to jack up rents by adding fancy new windows to your flat. More money for Berlin’s shabby public schools – all three have been promising that forever, so let’s hope they actually do something about education this time. Transport will be another focus: more bike lanes, more investment in public transport, this shouldn’t be too controversial among the three partners. The extension of the A100 Autobahn through Friedrichshain (Die Linke and the Greens are against it) could prove to be a significant sticking point in coalition talks. Then there’s BER. That monster of a dysfunctional airport that will be too small to cope with the number of passengers when it opens in late 2017 or 2018. The ongoing disaster of BER is far from over – the government will have to put in some serious hours to clean up this quagmire of corruption and incompetence.
Speaking of airports: the FDP was able to rise from the dead with the proposal of keeping little old Tegel up and running once BER opens its doors, which doesn’t look like such a bad idea at the moment.
In spite of the AfD’s entrance into the mainstream, these are interesting, even hopeful times for Berlin politics. If the red-red-green experiment under Michael Müller is a success, it could become a template for a real “alternative for Germany”.