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The good, the bad and the Wowi

Maybe you find local politics a bit boring, but even if the subtleties of German politics pass you by, you probably haven’t missed the fact that on September 18 Berlin goes to the polls. If you're a registered EU citizen you even get a local ballot!

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Photos by Craig Hull

Berlin elections: why we should care

Maybe you find local politics a bit boring. Perhaps a long, bitter debate about a railway station platform extension is not your idea of a rollicking good time. But even if the subtleties of domestic German politics sometimes pass you by, you probably haven’t missed the fact that on September 18 Berlin goes to the polls to decide whether or not Klaus Wowereit keeps his job.

And if you’re an EU citizen you might even have a ballot, albeit not one that allows you to have any part in the mayoral decision (that’s where it gets confusing).

But whatever your political or national allegiance, now’s your chance to let Exberliner’s crack political team show you what this Wahl business is all about.

Berlin, as you probably know, is a state (or Land) as well as a city. That means that this month’s state election will decide two things: who will govern the city and who will send representatives to the upper house of the German parliament (the Bundesrat).

The first of these means the parliament decides which parties get to occupy how many seats in the state parliament, or Abgeordnetenhaus (which is that big Prussian-looking building opposite the Walter-Gropius-Bau on Niederkirchnerstraße).

Like the federal election, the system is a hybrid of proportional representation and first-past-the-post. Sixty percent of the state parliamentary representatives are directly elected candidates for certain districts, while the other 40 percent of the eventual delegates come from party lists.

A total of 18 parties will be competing on ballots across the city, while an additional four made it onto the ballot in individual districts. But parties need to get at least five percent of the vote to get any seats at all. At the moment, those are only Germany’s five main parties – SPD, CDU, Die Linke, the Greens and FDP.

One of the more dramatic subplots will be to see whether the centre-right Free Democratic Party (FDP) – coalition partners with Chancellor Angela Merkel at a national level – will make the five-percent hurdle.

Meanwhile, the Piratenpartei is currently the biggest of the small parties, and at the time of writing is polling at 4.5 percent. It would be a huge triumph for them if they received enough votes to enter parliament.

At the moment, the biggest party is the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), who have about a third of the seats, and who have had their man Wowereit in the top job since 2001.

Historically, Berlin politics have been dominated by the SPD, even though it has rarely ruled alone. It currently makes up the Berlin government in coalition with the leftist Die Linke, but the SPD has been in power in Berlin, either as a major or minor coalition partner, since 1989.

The Berlin election also has influence on the national government, since Berlin, as one of Germany’s 16 states, gets four of the 69 votes in the Bundesrat (equivalent to the US Senate).

The state elections have already had consequences for Merkel. She lost control of the Bundesrat last May, when her Christian Democratic Union lost the election in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. Not that she’ll be expecting much from this election – the CDU is a long way behind Wowi, and he is more likely to share power with Die Linke or the Greens.

The September 18 election also decides the make-up of the less sexy district councils (excitingly entitled Bezirksverordnetenversammlungen), in which registered residents from EU countries get to vote.

If you wanted to register a protest at being denied more say in your local government, joining some of Berlin’s other international residents and get involved in the mock election would have been the way to go.