Residents of the German capital went to the polls amidst fears that voter turnout would be lower than ever. But DW's Jefferson Chase found out that most people still seem to consider voting a civic duty.
To an American like me German elections seem small, almost cuddly. If an American presidential election is a Hollywood blockbuster, full of action and oversized personalities and lasting far too long, then the German version is a made-for-TV movie: compact, calm and relatively practical.
But this election has been particularly sedate. Even in Berlin, normally quite a political city, you would have been hard-pressed to tell the nation was getting ready to vote, if it weren't for the campaign posters. Berlin's 2.5 million registered voters know that they're something of an anomaly and that the battle for political power is usually won and lost elsewhere in Germany.
The vast majority of people here have clear party allegiances anyway. The Greens and the Social Democrats (SPD) do well in the city center while the suburbs belong to the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). East Berlin is the domain of the formerly communist Left Party. Yesterday's darlings, the Pirates, seem to have run out of steam, and no one's expecting any big surprises.
Indeed, rarely has the result of an election seemed like such a foregone conclusion. In the past few weeks I've asked more than a hundred friends and acquaintances what they thought the outcome would be. No one thought that Angela Merkel would be voted out of office.
The chancellor's measured, pragmatic style of leadership even draws kudos from hardcore left-wingers. A friend of mine who's very vocal about her political beliefs told me a few days ago that while she'd never vote for the CDU, “Angie” – as the chancellor is often called – is perfectly acceptable.
A changing society
Despite the lack of suspense, there's a lot at stake for Berlin in the election. For instance, in my neighborhood, the northern part of the Neukölln district, rents have risen by an estimated 60 percent in the past three years – property prices are up by more than 150 percent. As bizarre as it may sound, people used to cast their ballots in a workingman's bar around the corner. Now they have to vote in a local school. The bar is long gone – a victim of gentrification.
The school-cum-polling station was only moderately busy when I went to have a look on Sunday morning. Were the people casting their ballots doing so out of a sense of duty or genuine conviction? I decided to take a quick straw poll before the school entrance. All those I ask said their motivations were a bit of both.
Were they voting tactically, I asked. For instance, in hopes of giving the current CDU-liberal Free Democratic government another four years, or of forcing the conservatives to form a grand coalition with the SPD?
“Not at all –you have to vote for the party you consider the best,” an elderly woman told me. “Or at least the one you find the least bad.”
To vote or not to vote
But not every one agrees with the logic of the “least of all evils.” In a prominent and controversial article for the Spiegel news magazine titled “Why I don't vote anymore,” sociologist Harald Welzer criticized the election as a hollow exercise disguising the fact that there was little difference between the main parties. “None of them have any ideas about how to preserve democracy in the 21st century. so the category ‘lesser of two evils' can't be taken seriously any more,” Welzer wrote. “Not voting is a way of announcing your non-acceptance of the situation.”
Ahead of Sunday, Spiegel and other news sources worried that voting levels could drop to historic lows. But was this primarily the result of left-wing voters' frustration at the inability of the Greens and the SPD to unseat Merkel. Welzer says no.
“The response to my article and my appearances in the media afterward has been just as great from the conservative camp,” Welzer told me. “That doesn't surprise me. When everyone is a social democrat in some sense, right and left don't mean much any more.”
There was a lot of discussion among Germans I know about whether to vote and, if so, for whom, although few people I know completely buy into Welzer's argument. For example, Michael, a 39-year-old IT specialist, countered that not voting just played into the hands of those in power.
“By withholding your voice, you're de facto endorsing the winner,” reasons Michael, who also believes that Merkel will stay in office. “Not voting is stupid.”
Many people in Berlin are unhappy with the political mainstream, but few of them know what should or could be done to change the system. Welzer sees political disillusionment as a phenomenon “common to all Western democracies” and thinks there could be a move toward more “direct democratic elements” along the model of Switzerland, where issues are often decided by public referendum.
Michael suggested that people could vote for non-mainstream, fringe parties – even at the risk that those groups would not fulfill the five-percent requirement needed for representation in the German parliament. Such ballots then get redistributed proportionally to the big parties, but even so, Michael thinks, voting on the margins can send a message to the mainstream.
The tendency in Berlin seems to be that people are still voting – often for the least of all evils. Indeed, voting itself is seen as a least of all evils.
The next generation
There are more than 34,000 more people eligible to vote in Berlin in 2013 than in the last national election four years ago. So what do the first-timers think? One of them is 20-year-old Milena, a university student.
She made up her mind with the help of the “Wahlomat” – a computer program that analyzes your views and tells you which political party best represents your interests. She says the topics that move her most are the environment, education and Germany's decision to phase out nuclear power. And she dismisses the cliché that today's young people are apolitical.
“I think my generation is very politically aware and often doesn't get taken seriously,” Milena told me. “When you consider the sort of politically motivated wars, attacks and other such things that we've experienced, it would be shocking if we weren't interested.”
Milena and the majority of her friends are glad to be able to vote, even if they don't imagine this election will bring about a revolution.
“I don't know if this year will change much.” Milena says. “But I hope that people young and old continue to stay informed. People's interest in politics makes them get upset when the political leadership isn't doing its job. And that leads to change and improvements.”
How long such enthusiasm will last is an open question. But most first-time voters in Berlin see the 2013 election as a welcome opportunity to make their voices heard and participate in democracy.