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Election press reactions

Jefferson Chase
September 19, 2016

Many newspapers see Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservatives as the big losers in Sunday's Berlin election. But that's only part of the story. Berlin is not necessarily typical of Germany.

Slowakei EU Gipfel in Bratislava Merkel
Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. De Sakutin

International newspapers took considerable interest in the local election in Germany's largest city, with the reaction focusing on the historically poor showing by the two largest parties, the Social democrats (SPD) and especially the conservative CDU under Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"Like the CDU, the Social Democrats gained their lowest share of the vote in Berlin ever," wrote The Guardian in England. "In the history of modern Germany, no party has previously won an election with a similarly poor result…(But) the result will hurt Merkel's CDU most. After defeats for the Christian Democrats in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Rhineland-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg, the Berlin result is the fourth blow in a row for the centre-right party."

Other commentators attributed that the CDU's poor performance and the 14 percent showing by the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to dissatisfaction with Merkel's welcoming stance toward refugees.

"This result is another serious warning sign for the German chancellor," wrote De Standaard in Belgium. "The chancellor doesn't want to reverse her 'generous' refugee policies, but she won't be able to avoid pressure growing from within her own Christian Democratic Party."

Although a series of poor local election results doesn't necessarily mean the beginning of the end for Merkel, the outcome in Berlin on Sunday does further dent her aura.

But as a look at German newspapers shows, the CDU's decline in the German capital also has to do both issues local to Berlin itself and with a general weakness of centrist parties in the country.

Infografik Abgeordnetenhauswahl Berlin 2016 Englisch
Both of CDU and SPD lost significant support while the AfD posted 14 percent

Winners as losers

The rise of the AfD, which was only formed in 2013, has been attributed not just to anti-migrant sentiment but also to social frustrations resulting from the growing gap between rich and poor in Germany as well as elsewhere in Europe.

That's cost votes not just for the CDU, but for the Social Democrats, who emerged as the strongest party with 21.6 percent of the vote, but still lost 6.7 percent compared with local Berlin elections in 2011. That led news magazine Der Spiegel to describe the SPD as "the weakest election winner of all time."

Some newspapers saw the Berlin result as a further instance of erosion of a stable political middle.

"There's no recognizable common political foundation," wrote Der Tages-Anzeiger in Zurich. "Multivalent political coalitions like this, which are born of necessity, may form a majority, but not a new political center."

But some German papers cautioned that there were limits to the nation-wide conclusions that could be drawn from the demise of the SPD-CDU government in Berlin.

"The right-wing AfD, the (business friendly) FDP and the Left Party have devoured the votes needed for a grand coalition," the Berlin newspaper taz wrote. "But what was begun in Berlin may not turn out to be the case on the federal level. The main reason the grand coalition was voted out in the capital was its own terrible politics."

Pre-election polls indicated that the SPD-CDU coalition that has governed Berlin since 2011 was the most unpopular state government anywhere in Germany. That is largely the product of the factors particular to the German capital.

Berlin Wahlen zum Abgeordnetenhaus Michael Müller
The pressure is not just on Merkel but also on Mayor MüllerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

Poor but sexy no more

Major sources of frustration for Berlin residents include the city's inability to open its new airport, years behind schedule and massively over budget, and rising rents caused in part by increasing numbers of tourists and more and more people moving to the city. But as a political signal for Berlin's future, the results of Sunday's vote were deeply ambiguous.

Some commentators were shocked that a right-wing populist party could do so well in a city with a relatively high percentage of foreigners and a reputation for social liberalism.

"The cherished image of cosmopolitan, urbane, tolerant and relaxed Berlin only reflects part of the reality," asserted the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. The French paper Républicain Lorrain even wrote of a "dam bursting in a Berlin previously known for its tolerance."

Many papers have pointed out that the AfD performed particularly well in poorer outer districts like Marzahn-Hellerdorf, which, socially speaking, are worlds away from trendy, multi-cultural, tourist-friendly neighborhoods like Kreuzberg.

But other journalists noted the irony that, despite the success of the right-wing AfD, Berlin's next government will almost certainly be less conservative.

"At a time when the country as a whole is moving to the right, Berlin has shifted to the left," wrote the Märkische Allgemeine newspaper.

And one of the city's leading dailies framed the election result as a chance for the city to shed its reputation as a "poor but sexy" capital incapable of competently managing itself.

"Never has there been a better time to govern Berlin," wrote the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. "The problems are well-known. The opportunities are everywhere. Economic conditions are better than they've been in decades. Tax revenues are on the rise. Berlin is no longer poor, so the city can have the courage to be something more than just sexy."

That optimism notwithstanding, the new left-wing coalition likely to be led by current SPD mayor Michael Müller must demonstrate that it's capable of solving some of the Berlin's problems. Otherwise it will be the big loser the next time the German capital heads to the polls.

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