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Government / Local politics

Berlin goes to the polls: What's at stake in this Sunday's state elections?

Since reunification, Berlin has been a huge success. The undisputed capital of European cool. The new Mecca for tech startups. Some of cheapest housing of any big, booming city. Home to western Europe’s most important government – and surely poised to overtake post-Brexit London.

Or – is Berlin a failure? The cheap housing eaten up tourist lets and hipsters who never learn the language. Its infrastructure an embarrassment compared to the rest of Germany, a fact summed up by the new airport which is six years behind schedule and counting. Huge debts, dreadful schools and a backwards economy.

Confused by these contradictions? Spare a thought for Berlin’s voters, who go to the polls on 18 September to elect a new administration. They have to figure out which story they believe, and who they trust to look after the city, over the next five years.

As one of Germany’s sixteen states, Berlin’s government has powers Britain’s mayors and council leaders can only dream of. This includes significant control over education, policing, urban development and taxes. The newly elected parliament will choose the governing mayor and other cabinet members.

The Social Democrats (SPD) look set to remain as the city’s largest party, but on a reduced share of the vote. The Christian Democrats (CDU), the Left party, and Greens are all vying to become their coalition partners, and a three-way pact looks likely.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD) will also enter the Berlin parliament for the first time. Polling suggests they will probably land in 4th or 5th place – but that will be enough to make a significant dent in the shares of the other parties.

Build more bloody houses

In the last few years the city’s SPD-CDU coalition government has made a number of moves which have attracted international attention. Two of them – the rent brake and the AirBnB ban – were attempts to preserve affordability as housing demand has grown.

The rent break was supposed to stop landlords from raising rents by more than 10 per cent of a neighbourhood average when signing a new contract with tenants. With the onus on tenants to take landlords to court for breaches of the rule, it is often flouted, and has had little effect beyond the first month after introduction. The SPD, who introduced the law, now suggest changing it so the burden of proof lies on the landlord.

The AirBnB ban stops people from letting out whole flats to tourists without a permit – but the task of enforcing that, too, falls to a very small team of inspectors.

Housing has featured strongly in this election, too – and, looking at the manifestos, there are some broad similarities between the different parties. Most of them speak of the need to build more flats, and especially affordable accommodation.

As Thomas Heilmann, a CDU member of the city government and the party’s campaign director, told me, in words which would sound alien coming from a British conservative: “The growth of the city attracts real estate developers. Part of our policy is really to restrict their trading – we do not want to have real estate that changes hands often and fast.

“The only thing we want is people to build new houses.”


The vision thing

Start asking politicians about their visions for the city, however, and clear differences start to appear.

The SPD and CDU are both keen to sustain or accelerate the city’s growth as an international hub for business and tourism. The much delayed airport is supposed to be a part of this, as are the new hotels and shopping centres springing up in popular neighbourhoods.

Thomas Heilmann sees the growth of the technology sector as the “most important economic development for the city in the next few years”. This will be partly through launches of new businesses. But it’ll also involve Germany’s industrial giants – mostly based far from Berlin – moving parts of their workforce to the city in order to develop their digital skills. VW has already done this, recently opening of a research centre for electric and self-driving vehicles.

On the other side, the Green and Left parties are pitching for residents feeling left behind by the changes in Berlin’s economy. Rents might be cheap compared to London, but they have risen quickly for people living here. And some Berliners feel that their neighbourhoods are suffering under the influx of party-seeking tourists.

A Green spokesperson told me that “instead of relying on ever new attendance records we want to work out a neighbourhood compatible tourism concept for Berlin”. This would preserve the variety of the city’s urban fabric, something they point out is one of the big draws for tourists in the first place. As Katalin Gennburg, a Left party candidate, said, “You can’t imagine a city as only a brand” without having a plan to manage different needs equitably.

One of the most important constituencies in the city consists of people who can’t vote – the tens of thousands of refugees living in the city. The pressure of new arrivals has dropped since 2015 but the city still needs to improve its processes for helping them. In the longer term, permanent homes and a place in society is needed for refugees who stay in Berlin.

The next five years will see significant challenges for Berlin – but many of these challenges come from being a city on the up. The new government will need to use its tools creatively and in a way that brings Berliners together. Otherwise divisions will become entrenched, and Berlin’s successes will start to pale in face of its failures.

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