On the 2016 Berlin election results

From a left-wing perspective, the results of the Berlin state election held on 18 September 2016 can be perceived as a success due to the good performance of the LEFT (Die LINKE). However, looking at the high approval rating for the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany), they are also reason for concern.

An overview of the electoral results

Achieving 21.6% of the vote, the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands – Social Democratic Party of Germany) managed to retain its position as Berlin’s strongest party. It lost, however, almost 7% of its voters; making this result a new historical low for the party in Berlin.
The same is true for the CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union – Christian Democratic Union; Conservatives) which won 17.6% and thus stayed below the 20% mark for the first time.
Also, the Greens lost voters and with 15.2%, they rank fourth behind the LEFT.
The LEFT attained 15.6% and therefore managed to clearly improve its approval rating compared to the 2011 election. In the city’s Eastern part, the party gained 25% and in the West 10%. The latter is a new phenomenon. As it has done previously in Hamburg and Bremen, the LEFT managed to reach and keep former voters of the Greens in Berlin also. The Pirates missed the 5% threshold by a distance. A large part of the Pirates’ electorate cast their vote for the LEFT since the party itself had already disintegrated and some prominent party members had declared their support for the LEFT. The FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei – Free Democratic Party; Liberals), in turn, managed to regain representation in the state parliament, having had no representation in the state parliament in the last term.
The real winner of the election, however, is the party which sees itself as the opponent of our parliamentary democracy – the Alternative for Germany. Even though it did not manage to win more than 20% as it did in the large East German territorial states, the party won the support of 230,000 voters; 70,000 of whom had been non-voters previously. It is therefore the AfD which manages to mobilise the highest number of voters who had stopped taking part in the political processes, to at least use their right to vote again. Almost 40,000 new AfD voters came from the CDU; 24,000 from the Social Democrats; 16,000 from the Left, 4,000 from the Greens and 46,000 from other parties. The AfD results in Berlin have shown that this party is also capable of becoming the strongest party in the periphery of metropolitan areas, particularly in deprived areas, such as in Marzahn-Hellersdorf where it ranks 0.1% ahead of the Left. In the long run, it will also establish itself in urban areas which are suffering from socio-structural and cultural devaluation.

The specificities of Berlin

In order to fully understand Berlin’s particular role and the election results, it is necessary to bear in mind some of the city’s specificities which have an influence on elections. Berlin is both a state and a municipality, as well as the seat of the Federal Government. Therefore, when elections take place in Berlin, both the deputies for the state parliament, as well as the municipal politicians in the 12 districts, are elected. For the municipal elections, the voting age was lowered to 16 in 2006. The total number of state parliament mandates is legally set at 130; 78 mandates are awarded in election districts according to the first-past-the-post system. The remaining mandates are awarded to the parties according to the election result and the parties’ candidate lists. Apart from that, so-called potential ‘overhang seats’ have a balancing effect, should the situation arise that, as a result of party votes, a party is entitled to fewer or more seats than it has won in election districts.
Since 2011, Berlin has been governed by a Grand Coalition. This was a makeshift solution, as coalition talks between the Socials Democrats and the Greens had failed and the LEFT’s 2011 results were insufficient for a continued red-red coalition (also, within the LEFT, the continuation of this coalition was a source of dispute anyway).
More than 20 parties put forward their candidacies. It was, however, clear beforehand that only some of them would manage to reach the 5% threshold at state level and the 3% threshold at municipal level. In the run-up to the elections, seven parties were already the focus of attention: the Social Democrats (SDP), the Conservatives (CDU), the Greens, the LEFT, the Pirates, the Liberals (FDP) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD). As of July 2016, the CDU is predicted to win less than 20% and the SPD less than 25%. Therefore, from as early as the summer, the continuation of this coalition has seemed arithmetically impossible. Also, it was no longer supported by the governing SPD mayor. He (and the majority of Berlin’s citizens) wanted the Grand Coalition to end and expressed his support for a red-green coalition, without, however, mentioning that a red-green coalition would not attain a sufficient number of mandates to form a coalition. This would be possible only with the involvement of the LEFT, as a red-red-green alliance. Regarding the topic of possible coalitions, Berlin citizens are divided: only 49% see this as a good solution. This low approval rating, however, could also be due to the fact that this coalition consists of three instead of the usual two parties and three-way coalitions are not a common phenomenon at state or federal level in Germany.
In the run-up to the election, the truly interesting question remained, however, whether the AfD would be as successful as it was in all previous state elections, not least in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania where it achieved 23% (a similar result to the 24% in Saxony-Anhalt).

Which topics dominated the election campaign?

Contrary to other state elections in 2015 and 2016, issues concerning the Berlin state dominated the campaign. However, the problems of Berlin’s refugee policy are hard to separate from the way they are handled on a federal level. The pictures illustrating the disastrous situation in front of refugee reception camps in Berlin – the State Office for Health and Social Affairs (Lageso) – became a visible symbol of the Conservatives’ inability and lack of will to implement Angela Merkel’s quote “We can do it” on a structural and financial level. At first, the responsible CDU senator underestimated the issue of refugee registration and housing. Then, refugee centres were established only in areas where they would not bother the party’s constituents. Consequently, the party’s handling of the problems led the whole senate into a crisis of legitimacy. While society proved to be open, the administration chose a restrictive approach in dealing with the topic of refugee housing. Neither the SPD mayor, nor the SPD senator for integration acted in an appropriate and responsible way. Without the support of Berlin civil society, the senate’s inability and lack of will to act would have weighed even heavier on the refugees’ shoulders; at the same time, government duties are increasingly passed on to volunteers.
Another central topic in Berlin is the city’s social polarisation, even though 80% of Berlin citizens describe their economic situation as good, and only 19% as bad. Berlin is the city with the second highest number of social benefit recipients; a fifth of Berlin children live in poverty, the highest rate in the country. The number of long-term unemployed citizens is stagnating at 17.4%, a high level compared to the national average. At the same time, the dramatic increase in rent levels, especially in inner city districts and bordering ‘hip’ districts has led to gentrification and segregation processes which have resulted in an expanding social and cultural division in the city and increasingly affect regions which are visibly left behind. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the AfD managed to win in one of Berlin’s Eastern districts (which for a long time used to be home to voters who secured the Left’s political survival) which was devalued by Berlin citizens (‘Let’s go to the ghetto’) on a social and cultural level, or even completely written off. Processes of area decline are on the increase – not only in this district – and this is increasingly shaped by the influx of people who can no longer afford high rents in (hip) inner city districts and have low incomes. This leads to an increased concentration of socially underprivileged people in a certain area. In recent years, this development has led to the emergence of deprived areas in which refugee camps were set up by the CDU senator in 2015. Social indifference or ignorance towards these developments – also on the part of other parties represented in the state parliament – paved the way for the propagation of right-wing and anti-migrant sentiments, which the LEFT was unable to fight effectively. In these areas, the LEFT did not interact sufficiently with its local supporters. During the election campaign, the LEFT concentrated on areas where it had chances of success. The underlying cause for this is the general problem that the LEFT ‘writes off’ certain regions (mostly large states), such as Saxony-Anhalt or Mecklenburg-West Pomerania as ‘out of reach’. By doing so, the LEFT creates a political vacuum which is subsequently filled by the AfD.
Transport problems such as the urban railway, the difficulties Berlin citizens face when trying to get appointments at the administrative offices for citizens, unregulated tourism in inner city districts, as well as the insensitive management of events in the urban area and finally, the never-ending story of the Berlin airport, are further problems for Berlin.

How to assess the result?

Compared to the rest of Germany, we are confronted with a unique situation: that there is one ‘leading’ party with little more than 20% and three ‘chaser’ parties with an approval rating between 15 and 20%. And there is the AfD with 15% in the capital city and one of the country’s most important metropolises.
The Social Democrats, the LEFT and the Greens have won a majority in the past, but have never managed to form a coalition. Therefore, the question is now: if there will be a red-red-green coalition this time, what kind of project will this coalition launch? Also, in what way will this project be shaped by social justice, democracy and solidarity?
According to surveys held on the eve of the election, among the topics which were decisive for the electorate were social justice (mentioned by roughly 50% of the voters), economy and labour (roughly 30%), schools and education (roughly 25%) and rents and housing (just below 20%).
Particularly for the LEFT, this party triangle bears problems, such as the Social Democrats’ exhaustion and lack of imagination. The SPD’s election campaign was not directed towards any clear goal (its project was to make Berlin a ‘social city’). Consequently, the party’s poll ratings in social justice dropped by 8%. However, the party still ranks first in this matter. The Greens tried to reach everyone with their ‘catch-all approach’, used a whole set of different and vague political statements (see Hoff, p. 12) and campaigned against the Right in the final phase. Hoff writes in his analysis that the Greens adjusted their election campaign, programme and candidates so as to be open to all kinds of government coalitions and therefore concludes that the Greens represent the most difficult partner in a red-red-green coalition (see Hoff, ibid.).
Thus, it will be the LEFT’s task to convince both coalition partners to create a common project and make Berlin a social, democratic and open-minded metropolis by launching very specific projects and measures.
The LEFT started its campaign by asking no less than ‘Who owns the city?’ and focused on its core competence: social justice. The party chose the issue of rent and housing as its central topic and called for an increased focus on new affordable social housing, the development and defence of instruments to prevent rent increases and the protection of tenants from gentrification processes, especially in inner city districts.
Housing is a core issue for the LEFT, and must remain so in the years to come. In 2004, the party agreed to sell the city’s largest building society (GSW), which owned 64,000 apartments, as a measure to restructure the budget after Berlin Landesbank’s collapse which constituted ‘the Fall’ of the LEFT in the red-red coalition. For left-wing voters, the party’s credibility depends on the way it handles housing and rent questions. As a potential member of a three-way red-red-green coalition, the LEFT will therefore need to prove that it has made progress on this question (and others) and that its left-wing demands are feasible. This means, the housing and rent question will be some sort of litmus test for the LEFT and it has to show competence in this field and stick to it, including on the ground.
Principle aspects of the LEFT’s demands are similar to the ones the SPD and the Greens made in their electoral programmes. Thus, this topic may become one of this potential coalition’s central projects.
Another potential and important project is the rehabilitation of the administrative offices for citizens. The city must return to running smoothly – these were the words of all three frontrunners from the SPD, Greens and the LEFT – and has to go back to focussing on citizens. But even more than that is necessary. The slogan ‘Vote for the LEFT and the city is yours’ (used in the LEFT’s electoral campaign) must truly come to life. This entails decision processes being made accessible. The old project on participatory budgeting led to some experiences in this field. In the end, it is about re-defining the relationship between representative and direct democracy. It is not least the government’s failure or the administrative sector’s inability to facilitate the integration of refugees which play into the hands of the Right.
Hence, the third project on the agenda of this potential coalition should be social integration and specific measures to promote active solidarity. Berlin has the chance to shape social integration with the help of active citizens who have taken over the management of most of the refugees since the summer of 2015, while the state of Berlin failed miserably in conducting this task. This means the city should take measures against increased cuts in social protection. Such cuts undermine social cohesion which provides necessary assistance and support to those who need it – no matter if they are refugees or social benefit recipients for many years who have already been given up on. However, this means also that the new senate must be ready to come into conflict with the Federal Government and mobilise people for its political positions.
If a different political culture (from a left-wing perspective) is adopted, it is now particularly important to establish close links with civil society and the large number of volunteers. In order to achieve more participation, instruments developed by the former red-red coalition may be used to enhance citizens’ participation in politics and decision processes. This means that it is necessary for the LEFT to be an active member of this coalition and rectify its inability to strike a balance between the party’s state government staff and the party itself. Thus, an active impulse from the Left to create new democratic instruments may be enabled. And it is particularly important to focus on those regions which are not hip and sexy, but simply poor.