Blunders in Berlin

Berlin’s new government started off on the wrong leg.  Will it ever get both feet on the ground?  And if it does, what direction will the feet be facing?  Before describing its first blunders, a brief look backwards could be helpful.

Both of the two parties running the city-state of Berlin took losses in last September’s elections.  But while the largest party, the Social Democrats (SPD), led by popular mayor Klaus Wowereit, lost relatively few voters, its smaller coalition partner, the former Party of Democratic Socialism (now renamed The Left), suffered severely, especially in its strongholds, the East Berlin boroughs.  Half of its former voters switched allegiance or, more often, just stayed home — showing their dissatisfaction with what the city government had handed down in its five years of rule, especially its cuts in many spheres of city life.  The Left had tried to convince voters that with city finances in shambles due to the previous government’s fraud and mismanagement, it had cushioned worse blows, rescued some benefits, and even made gains here and there.  But it never got this across — the media certainly didn’t help any — and Mayor Wowereit, in a flush of his relative success, let slip his sly conclusion that The Left had been successfully “disenchanted” during its participation in his coalition.  This was painful but true.

Yet to everyone’s surprise, Wowereit and his Social Democrats did not switch over to a new coalition with the Greens, as the latter had triumphantly assumed, but decided to stick with The Left, although together they had the thinnest of leads in the new Chamber of Representatives; its majority would consist of a single seat — like the Democrats’ lead in the US Senate.  Almost equally surprising, The Left agreed to stay on as junior partner, while trying to prevent any further disenchantment with new, tougher conditions: continuing traditional tuition-free studies at Berlin’s universities (while this tradition was being broken elsewhere in Germany), no charges for pre-school child care, an East German carry-over now slowly regaining ground in Germany, no more privatizing of state-owned public utilities and housing, holding on to the reduced prices for the jobless in public transportation and cultural events, and ending discriminatory divisions in the schools.  For more militant members — “the left of the Left” — these demands did not justify staying in a no-win coalition with Social Democrats who, on a national level, were creating economic havoc with their right-wing Christian Democratic coalition partners under Angela Merkel.  But such Cassandra voices were overridden.

So, after weeks of bargaining, the SPD and the The Left agreed on a joint program and a cabinet with five Senators (as Cabinet ministers are called in Berlin) from the SPD and three from the Left.  But first of all, Mayor Wowereit needed a majority approval vote in the 149-seat Chamber of Representatives.  Since the SPD and The Left had the 75 seats required, one more than the 74 of the opposition (Christian Democrats, Free Democrats, and Greens); since party discipline is usually very strict, with little of the aisle-crossing so common in Washington; and since no deputy was ill or absent, victory seemed a foregone if narrow conclusion.

The problem was that this time voting was secret, and that led the way to a double whammy — and a horrible surprise, especially for Wowereit.  The voting came out 74-73, one short of the required number.  Two members, one on each side, had abstained!  To make things worse, the chairman — also a Social Democrat — mistakenly called it a victory for Wowereit, a strange blunder since all the possibilities had been chewed over for weeks and months.  The opposition was quick to make objections, but agreed to a second vote after a half hour of arm twisting.  The poor chairman may yet be forced to resign because of his embarrassing mistake.

In the second vote, the magical number of 75 was achieved.  No one admits to being one of the two abstainers, though the press was quickly full of conjectures.  The opposition was equally quick to point out how shaky the new coalition was, unable to rely on its own members, and predicted that it would hardly last out five years till the next election.  The leading Christian Democrat, whenever he could find a camera or microphone, warned about the “sword of Damocles” hanging over the heads of this unlucky bunch of “leftists” who must certainly fail in  running Berlin.  And Mayor Wowereit, faced with such treacherous insubordination, no longer wore his usual easy-going smile.

It remains to be seen whether this fragile situation has positive angles.  It may even provide The Left with more leverage in pushing through progressive measures and preventing nasty ones.  The “Cassandras” in The Left stress that such leverage can only be effective if people are moved into action in the workshops, schools, colleges, and streets of Berlin, not just in the chambers and caucus rooms of City Hall (still called “Red City Hall” or “Rotes Rathaus” because of the color of the brick building).

Many on the left realized how important this might be for the process of  building a new Left party, mostly composed of the old Party of Democratic Socialism, largely in East Germany and East Berlin and the WASG (Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Security), mostly in West Germany.  The timetable agreed upon for their merger calls for it to be completed by June, but many a bump and pothole obstruct the route; not least of them is the contradiction between opposing the whole reactionary system in present-day Germany while at the same time joining it, if somewhat critically, in the country’s capital, the city-state of Berlin, and perhaps elsewhere as well.

Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

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