Berlin Votes… Again
Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program
Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.
Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017).
Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.
Observers of German politics often lament the exaggerated attention devoted to state (Land) elections—especially those that do not coincide with a national election. Such regional polls are interpreted as a barometer of the perpetual horse race among the parties. Who’s up? Who’s down? What do the results portend for the next all-important national election? And such attention seems to be independent of the size or representativeness of the state. In reality, an election in Bavaria with 13 million (voting this October) matters more than in Bremen (elections on May 14th) with its 676,000 inhabitants. But, no, each election will be meticulously analyzed and projected onto the national political stage.
The election in Berlin that occurred on Sunday, February 12, is an excellent case in point, generating substantial political and media attention. We should indeed be wary of reading too much into this result. Its population of 3.7 million constitutes less than 5 percent of the country’s population. It is a completely urbanized city-state that is rather more diverse than the country as a whole—37 percent of Berliners have a migration background versus 26 percent nationwide. And the population is more leftist. 57.2 percent of voters chose the three leftist parties (SPD, Green, Left) versus 45.2 nationwide in the 2021 Bundestag election.
Moreover, this election was actually a repeat of the original election held concurrently with the Bundestag election on September 26, 2021. Many problems were apparent in real-time, including shortages of ballots, incorrect and incomplete papers, and long lines. (Some of this was due to disruptions caused by the Berlin marathon held on the same day.) Approximately 10 percent of the polling places were affected. The official overseeing the 2021 election resigned a few days afterward, and then in November 2022, the state’s constitutional court ordered the new elections—interestingly to complete the 5-year term that began after the 2021 election rather than resetting the clock with a new 5-year term. Berlin is indeed different as the old saying goes.
Still, the result is quite fascinating and does say something about the state of national politics. The most important headline is the CDU under leader Kai Wegner won a resounding victory with 28 percent of the vote (more than 10 percent more than in 2021). The three governing parties all lost support. The SPD was down 3 percentage points to 18.4 percent, the Greens down slightly to 18.4 percent, and the Left came in at 12.2 percent losing about 2 percentage points from the last time. The SPD barely edged out the Greens for the second spot. This is consequential because if the CDU is unable to form a government, the SPD will have the natural claim to lead a continuation of the “Red-Green-Red” coalition that SPD state leader Franziska Giffey has headed as Governing Mayor. Losses for the beleaguered governing parties were expected, but there was a sense of relief among these parties that the outcome was not worse. The Left in particular was almost elated, given that nationally they are in the 4-6 percent range and thus in danger of losing Bundestag representation if things do not improve. That, incidentally, was the fate of the Liberals (FDP) in Berlin, coming in below the 5 percent threshold at 4.6 percent. Finally, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) increased its share of the vote by 1 percentage point to 9 percent overall or 137,000 votes citywide (particularly in eastern Berlin). Turnout was tepid at only 63 percent, down from 75 percent in 2021. This was especially deleterious for the governing parties: more 2021 voters decided to stay at home than switched their votes to another party. That said, the second largest group of lost 2021 SPD voters did flip to the victorious CDU.
The results for the SPD reinforce the narrative that the SPD’s big victory that year was anomalous and will likely not be repeated.
These results translated into 52 seats for the CDU, 34 seats for both the SPD and Greens, 22 for the Left, and 17 for the AfD. The next task will be to form a new government, which requires at least 80 seats in the parliament (Abgeordentenhaus). Because none of the other parties will contemplate a coalition with the AfD, there are three numerically possible options. There could be a Black-Green (CDU-Green) pairing with 86 seats, a grand coalition (CDU-SPD) also with 86, or a continuation of the incumbent government, a Red-Red-Green (SPD, Left, Green) with 90 seats. As the winning party, the CDU has the right to first try to form a government. Many analysts think this will be difficult because the incumbent parties have announced that they would like to continue in coalition. The SPD and its leader Giffey would lose the powerful mayorship to Wegner and thus are unlikely to support a grand coalition. Only the Greens have leverage going forward, seeing as they will be the crucial junior partner to either the CDU or the SPD. The challenge for the CDU will be whether they can make an offer to the Greens that will pry them away from the leftist coalition.
The issues that motivated voters were hyperlocal but also resonant nationally. Berliners are upset with the state of public services such as extended waits at various governmental offices and the poor performance of public transportation. Traffic was polarizing with the Greens emphasizing cycling, the CDU cars, and the SPD all of the above. High rents and restricted housing supply concerned many, but the most decisive issue was probably policing and internal security with the fresh memory of extensive brawls on New Year’s Eve, including many attacks on police and fire authorities, which conveyed an impression of an administration failing to meet its responsibility for ensuring public order.
As for national implications, the abysmal result for the FDP will likely reverberate with the national party, one of the three members of the federal traffic light coalition. Down about 5 percentage points in the national polls compared to its 2021 Bundestag election result, the FDP has been seeking to present a stronger profile within the federal government, raising tensions over key issues. The outcome in Berlin might strengthen the voices of disruption federally because the party’s fears of having lost their distinctive profile with their leftist coalition partners could become more acute. The results for the SPD are in line with their recent national polling level (down about 5 points from 2021) and reinforce the narrative that the SPD’s big victory that year was anomalous and will likely not be repeated. And finally, the Greens have continued their pattern of polling high before an election and underperforming on election day.