The Jolly Roger Flies in the Berlin Elections

Berlin voted on Sunday.  Mayor Klaus Wowereit, a Social Democrat, retains his office but his government needs reshuffling.  The only real surprise was a hefty 9 percent vote for an unusual new party, the Pirates, whose fifteen delegates in the new city parliament will be their first anywhere in Germany.

With Pirates in parliament (though not in power), will anyone be walking the plank?  The floundering big-biz party, the Free Democrats (FDP), which still holds the Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister spots in the federal government as junior partners to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, suffered its fifth defeat in as many state elections this year.  Under 2 percent on Sunday, and no more deputy seats in Berlin’s parliament, it is now gasping for air.  Last-minute attempts to build on anti-Greek sentiment, opposing financial support for that sagging euro-comrade, didn’t help it one bit.  Most Berliners, if they thought about the party at all, said “Good riddance!”

But ach and alas, the Left party — die Linke — also plunged into icier political waters.  Its 11.5 percent, lower even than its disappointing 13.4 in 2006, meant that its 19 seats in the city-state parliament (down from 23) could no longer give Mayor Wowereit the required majority of 76 seats.  After ten years of joint though junior rule, it will now be part of the opposition.

The Social Democrats lost almost as many percentage points as the Left but were still strongest kids on the block.  Debonair, popular Wowereit — who joyfully accepted the cheers of party members, standing next to his life partner — must now choose between an uneasy partnership with the Greens, with a majority of only one seat, or with the Christian Democrats.  The latter would grant a numerically more stable majority but would require more than a few steps to the right, not his ideal.

Earlier this year the Greens and their loud, energetic leader Renate Kuenast hoped to win first place and the mayor’s job, but she proved too loud and too energetic for Berliners.  The result, 18 percent, was the best the Greens had ever achieved in Berlin but far less than they hoped for, while the Christians stayed ahead, moving forward two points to hold on to second place.

Who then are these new Pirates?  They don’t resemble Long John Silver or Blackbeard in the least.  Indeed, some male candidates seem hardly old enough to have any beard at all.  For they are, above all, a party of and for young voters.  Until recently they were more a joke than anything else.  But — with 9 percent at their very first try — who is still laughing?

What do they stand for?  That is not easy to determine.  They started out by demanding full freedom in the Internet, opposing any charges or regulation from above, and this alone won support within the electronic generation.  But it wasn’t enough for a party program.  They added a demand which is always attractive on the political scene: transparency.  Everything should be above board.  They have since spoken, if a bit vaguely, of things like dropping requirements for driving licenses, of classes on drugs in the schools, and of a basic livable income for everyone, whether or not he or she had a job.  Such demands resounded successfully in young ears, with many who would not have voted at all otherwise and many who would have voted for other parties.  Thus, Pirate cutlasses chopped off votes from what were considered Establishment parties, the Social Democrats, even the poor Left (whose share in the government made them “establishment”), and most of all from the Greens, whose compromising positions on so many issues robbed them of much earlier youthful, rebellious glamour.  Whether the 15 Pirate delegates, all political newbies, will gain experience and make any political dents remains to be seen; as yet the pundits are unsure about pinning them down as leftish, centrist, or whatever.  They could become allies of the Left, with whom they actually share many ideas.  Now they represent largely a protest vote.  The next five years will tell whether that means anything or is a flash in the pan.

And the Left?  Christian Democrats and Greens crowed gleefully at its losses, which meant an end to ten years of a so-called “Red-Red” government coalition in Berlin.  Why have they been dipping, unevenly but clearly in both West Berlin (4.5 percent) and East Berlin (22.6)?

One reason is clear.  An overwhelmingly hostile media linked every failing in running Berlin, every painful budget cut, to the Left.  The three Left cabinet ministers (called senators) were largely responsible for key improvements in the school system, for getting free kindergarten care, sharply reduced tickets for the jobless in public transportation and for cultural and sports events, for hindering the forced moving of the jobless from their homes because of higher rents.  They had fought and sometimes won more jobs and higher pay for city employees and prevented the privatization of city banks.  But all this was distorted, ignored, or credited to Wowereit.

In addition, all such efforts had confused their basic position as a party of opposition to the ruling system, of rebelliousness, street demonstrations and the sometimes outrageous actions which shock some but win the hearts of others, especially young people.  Indeed, the ranks of the Left, especially in East Berlin, were still to a great degree the faithful from former GDR years, before that state disappeared in 1990, and their ranks were dwindling.  Many young voters chose to follow Jolly Roger flags somehow representing resistance.

It was clear to all in the Left party that attention to young people’s problems and culture had been woefully neglected.  Some also noticed a similar weakness in regard to immigrant groups, now increasingly with voting rights, especially Berlin’s large Turkish population.

There were other reasons.  The Left had been torn by inner quarrels between its two wings.  A fleeting use of the word “Communism” as a distant goal by co-chairperson Gesine Loetzsch in January was pounced on by the media, also a greeting to Fidel Castro on his 85th birthday and a decision by three local leaders of the Left in northern Schwerin to abstain from publicly regretting the building of the Berlin Wall fifty years earlier.  All this (and more) was grist for unfriendly mills, from left center to far right.

The question demanding urgent answers was whether the Left was too radical, as its “reformer” wing implied, thus barring itself from the main, acceptable political ring, or on the contrary not militant enough, as the other, more “leftist” wing maintained.  But after seeing the disappointing vote Gregor Gysi, party guru and chair of its Bundestag caucus, said: “We have been spending ninety percent of our time with inner disputes and ten percent with national problems.  This must be turned around completely!”  After key planks of the national program were poached by the other parties, basic demands needed to be found and fought for.  The Left’s national conference on its basic program next month in Erfurt could lead to just that — or to worse wrangling than ever.  It will almost certainly feature crucial decisions.

A postscript: While a “Red-Red” coalition of Social Democrats and the Left in the state of Brandenburg around Berlin continues in office relatively successfully, the newly re-elected Social Democratic governor in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania north of Berlin (it’s called “Meck-Pom”) must now decide between a coalition with the Christian Democrats, as currently exists, or a reversal to one with the Left, which is also possible.  The Berlin vote could impel him to choose the former solution.

A second postscript: The neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) and a new “pro-Deutschland” party based on hatred of Muslims posted election placards all around Berlin caricaturing Africans and Muslims in a frighteningly racist way.  One poster showed the NPD leader grinning on a motorcycle under the slogan: “Give Gas!” — a hardly ambiguous appeal for genocide.  Attempts to ban it were turned down in court.  Neither party got enough votes to enter the city parliament.  How many seats they won in borough councils is not yet known.



  % Seats Compared with 2006
Social Democrats 28.3 47 – 2.5
Christian Democrats 23.4 39 + 2.1
Greens 17.6 29 + 4.5
Left 11.7 19 – 1.7
Pirates 8.9 15 new
Free Democrats 1.8 0 – 5.8

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).

| Print