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Berlin: Conservatives win vote but unclear who will rule

February 13, 2023

Voters returned to polling booths across the German capital after a botched 2021 election was declared invalid. More voters picked the center-right CDU than any other party, but its candidate may not get to be mayor.

CDU candidate for Berlin mayor Kai Wegner addresses supporters following the first election projections for the rerun of state elections in Berlin, Germany on February 12, 2023
CDU candidate for Berlin mayor Kai Wegner says he will begin talks with other parties to form a new coalitionImage: Michele Tantussi/REUTERS

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats (SPD) suffered a setback Sunday in a rerun of the Berlin state election.

The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) picked up the largest share of the vote at 28.2%, leaving the SPD in a tie for second place with the environment-friendly Greens, each with 18.4%.

The result is the worst for the SPD in the post-war era in Berlin. In 2021, the center-left party received 21.4% of the vote.

The SPD is currently in a coalition with the Greens and the Left Party in the German capital, led by 44-year-old Mayor Franziska Giffey — the city's first elected female mayor.

For the CDU, the result is the best in 20 years, potentially giving them 48 seats in the 147-seat Berlin state parliament, with the SPD and the Greens each taking 31.

Unclear who will run Berlin now

Despite the apparent win, there is no guarantee that the CDU will be part of the city government or that its candidate Kai Wegner will get to be mayor.

Wegner said he wanted to woo the Greens and SPD to form a two-party coalition with his party after the repetition of the parliamentary elections. He said he  would seek exploratory talks with both parties to see "whether we can manage a coalition of modernization."

"Berlin is a city of homelessness and child poverty, and I want Berlin to become a city where everyone finds their place," Wegner said. "That hasn't happened in Berlin in recent years under the SPD." 

He warned the previous governing coalition against a seeking to form a new government. "All three governing parties — the SPD, Greens and the Left — have lost," he said. The SPD, he said, had the historically worst election result it has ever had in Berlin," and the Berlin CDU has a clear mandate to govern."

However, the current coalition still has a majority in Berlin's House of Representatives.

While admitting Berliners' frustration with her administration, Giffey said her goal was to remain in government.

"If we have a chance to lead a government alliance under SPD leadership, we will also try to organize a stable political majority for it," she told local media.

If the Greens win second place, the party's top candidate Bettina Jarasch could move into the position of mayor.

Green Party co-leader Omid Nouripour held out hopes for a continued coalition between his party, the SPD and the Left Party.

"We prefer that the current coalition continues — preferably with the Greens at the front," he told ARD. "But of course, the Greens in Berlin will speak with all the democratic parties."

Berlin held rerun of its botched local elections: DW's Benjamin Alvarez-Gruber reports

2021 election widely criticized

Sunday's vote was ordered after the 2021 election was marred by severe glitches at many polling stations and hours-long lines as some polling places ran out of ballot papers or received ones for the wrong district.

The Constitutional Court of Berlin, one of three German cities that is also a state in its own right, declared the vote invalid in November.

It said a partial rerun would not be enough "in view of the large number and severity of the election errors."

Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey votes in Sunday's election rerun on February 12, 2023
Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey has only been in the role for a yearImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

Berliners have long been frustrated by the city's notoriously dysfunctional administration, which has defied cliches of German efficiency for years and made it the laughing stock of the rest of the country.

High rents, dilapidated school buildings and outdated public transport were also among Berliners' top election complaints.

The results, if confirmed, also reflect the SPD's struggles nationally, as Scholz's government — in power for just over a year —  wrestles with rampant inflation and the fallout of the war in Ukraine.

Sunday's turnout was lower than in 2021, with about 63.5% to 65% of voters participating by 6 p.m. local time (1700 GMT).

In 2021, it was 75.4%, although it is difficult to compare these numbers as a federal election was held at the same time, and these usually attract more voters.

mm,rc/dj (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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