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Berlin election win boosts German conservatives

February 13, 2023

Following an election victory in Berlin, Germany's Christian Democrat leader Friedrich Merz claimed vindication for his conservative shift. But building a coalition could still prove difficult.

Berlin CDU celebrating its victory on February 12
The CDU's Kai Wegener won a major victory in Berlin — but is still unlikely to governImage: Sebastian Christoph Gollnow/dpa/picture alliance

Berlin's voting map after its repeated state election on Sunday night resembled a great leaf charred at the edges — a green patch for the urban center, where the environmentalist Green Party dominated, surrounded by suburbs shaded in black, the color that traditionally represents the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Though the map was only an imperfect reflection of the actual result — in fact, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) appear to have come second overall by the number of votes — it did reflect the cultural divide entrenched in Germany: A young, center-left generation most concerned about the climate set against an older suburban generation whose main worry is criminality.

The CDU, who won the election comfortably with over 28% of the vote, seems to have carried the day because of their focus on security and order: A voter survey carried out by infratest dimap showed that this was the most important issue for Berlin voters overall: 23% picked it as their biggest concern, ahead of housing (17%) and the climate (15%). And the CDU, most voters agreed, was the party best capable of addressing the problem.

NYE violence sparks debate in Germany

New Year's Eve chaos

The chaotic and violent scenes on New Year's Eve in some of Berlin's urban centers almost certainly helped the CDU. Polls in November and December showed the SPD, the CDU, and Greens running a closer race, but in the first week of January, the same week that Berlin voters could begin sending in their mail ballots, stories about young men throwing fireworks at emergency workers dominated headlines across Germany.

That fed a debate with racist overtones that the CDU's leading candidate Kai Wegner was able to capitalize on. Many of the areas that saw the most trouble had large immigrant communities, and Wegner promptly provoked a media debate by demanding that the Berlin government release the first names of German nationals suspected of causing trouble, so that the public could determine whether they were of Arab or Turkish origin.

Though Wegner's suggestion was angrily criticized by his rivals, SPD Mayor Franziska Giffey and Green Party candidate Bettina Jarasch, it seems to have tapped into deep prejudices in the population: 83% of new CDU voters questioned by infratest dimap agreed with the line: "I think it's good that they clearly name the problems with immigrants."

Frank Decker, a political scientist at the Rheinische Friedrichs Wilhelms University in Bonn, says that this particular issue could well come to bite Olaf Scholz's federal coalition. "The CDU has made a point out of insisting that certain issued are being made taboo," he told DW. "And what is interesting about Berlin is that this issue helped the CDU more than it did the AfD. This protest vote against migration policy normally drove the AfD."

As it happened, the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) took 9% of the vote at this election, but that was only one point more than in 2021, while the CDU was able to add over 10 points to its 2021 result.

"The center-left parties, especially the Greens, will have to ask themselves how they address this issue," said Decker. "And it's a permanent issue. This is a society of immigration, plus we'll be dealing with the issue of refugees for a while."

Election strategy: Stoking racial tension

The prospect will perhaps give new impetus to Friedrich Merz, the CDU's national leader, who himself campaigned in Berlin and who kicked up his own racism debate in early January with his "little pashas" comment.

On a national TV debate show, Merz drew a direct causal link between the trouble on New Year's Eve in Berlin and unruly eight-year-old Arab children in Germany's elementary schools who, he claimed, have no respect for their female teachers. "That's where it begins," Merz said on the Markus Lanz TV show. "These are predominantly young people from the Arab world who are not prepared to stick to the rules here in Germany."

The other issue in the Berlin election that is likely to become salutary for national politics is climate policy — and in particular traffic policy. Young German climate protesters have taken to directly confronting motorists across Germany by blocking roads, and the Green Party's plans to pedestrianize parts of the city have antagonized conservative voters.

"Traffic plays a large part in emissions, and there is an objective need for something to be done, but it is highly controversial, especially in major cities," said Decker. "It is very difficult to reduce traffic, and likely to cause many conflicts, and the federal coalition is going to have to address this issue too."

Where to compromise?

Wegner's victory seems to represent a vindication for Merz's conservative leadership: It is the first state parliament that the CDU has been able to wrestle from Chancellor Olaf Scholz's SPD in the post-Merkel era. The problem is that no German government functions without a coalition and even a rightward-shifting CDU will have to make centrist compromises.

As things stand, Berlin's current center-left coalition of SPD, the Greens, and the socialist Left Party still have a parliamentary majority — which means that any CDU-led government in the capital would have to make some good offers to the SPD or the Greens to lure them away.

"This is obviously not a defeat for Merz, but it doesn't help him much either," said Decker. "I think it's probable that the current coalition will continue, so the CDU doesn't gain much from this victory."

Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears to have emerged from Sunday night's results relatively unscathed. Though his Social Democrats scored one of their worst-ever results in the German capital, surveys suggest that voters blamed the SPD for the notoriously poor service in administrative offices. Berliners' frustration with the administration has become legendary in Germany, and that ire appears to be most directed at the SPD.

Finding common ground

Meanwhile, the CDU's natural coalition partners, the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), are in a nationwide slump that was reflected dramatically in Berlin on Sunday night when they dropped below the 5% threshold for entering parliament. With the FDP relegated to a minor party, the CDU will be forced — both in Berlin and potentially across the country at the next election — to find common ground either with the SPD or the Greens.

There is also the prospect of a similar situation developing in Thuringia. In the eastern German state, the Left Party State Premier Bodo Ramelow has been leading a fragile left-wing minority government.

The AfD, the second biggest group in parliament is currently leading Thuringian polls, raising the real possibility that it could become the biggest party at the next election in 2024, but will not be able to govern as no other party is willing to work with it yet.

Edited by Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight