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Partei Time

February 19, 2023

Last Sunday, February 12, was an election day in Berlin – a “do-over” of the fall 2021 city elections that were declared invalid by the courts due to several errors. Peter got to vote! As a non-voting spectator, most of my interaction with the election was trying to understand the signs that, in early January, sprouted on almost every telephone pole.

Berlin is a Stadtstaat – both a city (Stadt) and a state (Bundesstaat). The parliamentary elections work similarly to how national elections work for the Bundestag (directly-elected house of Congress). Voters select a party, and then based on the distribution of votes, the parties get a certain number of seats. The Mayor, like the national Chancellor, is chosen by the majority party – or, really, coalition, as there are many parties and it’s extremely rare for any single party to win 50% of the vote. So each party has a candidate for Mayor but voters don’t vote for the candidates directly. One more detail: if a party doesn’t get a minimum of 5% of the vote, no seats. This is a guardrail against minority takeover, aka, what happened with the Nazis in the 1930s.

From my bicycle, I was very interested in the signs and what they might be saying. The biggest signs were from the FDP, Freie Demokratische Partei, and this one is very pro-car. This is the libertarian party, other signs included slogans like “We’ll get business out of the wastebasket” and so on. I would have thought from the size and abundance of these signs that the FDP was competitive, and they are part of the national majority coalition, but they did not hit the 5% threshold in Berlin.

“Transportation politics without a blind spot” – aka, too much focus on transit and biking. Hmm.

We were partial to the Green Party (Die Grünen) not just because of our politics, but because the mayoral candidate’s last name was just one letter off from our family name. Jarasch is the current head of transportation in Berlin, and has prioritized climate-friendly policies, so the pro-car signs were directly pointing to her. The current governing coalition is “red-green” – the Greens together with the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei) – but the SPD won more votes last election so they are the “senior” coalition party, so to speak, and therefore the current Mayor is from the SPD.

I didn’t photograph any SPD or CDU signs – they are the center-left and center-right parties, respectively, and their signs were less interesting. SPD had a lot of photos of the current Mayor trying to look responsible and accessible. The CDU, or Christliche Demokratische Union, had more pro-car slogans that were less clever than the FDP. To my (shallow, uninformed) eye, the CDU candidates all looked like investment bankers, in comparison to the more “natural” look of the Green candidates, the “entrepreneur” look of the FDP candidate, and what I would call an academic look to the SPD.

I did take some photos of a couple of less popular parties’ signs. This one I thought was from Die Linke (“the Left”) but on closer look it’s not, it’s more of a general anti-fascist sign.

“Voting on the Right is so 1933” – the use of Fraktur font drives the point home

The AFD (Alternative Für Deutschland) are the far-right anti-immigration, pro-German purity party. (Remember the Reichsburger coup plot from December? One of the strategists was a former member of parliament, representing AFD.) Their signs were dog-whistling (“For our Berlin, for our city”) when not openly bigoted (I will not repeat their anti-trans sign). Also on the right seem to be the Basis party. From a distance they looked like a pro-family party because the stock photos were of smiling blonde moms and kids, but closer up the slogans were primarily anti-vaxxer.

“Self-decision instead of vaccination”

Most amusing to me is the Pirate Party (Piraten Partei) that I believe started as an internet freedom/semi-spoof party, that had up signs about the EU working together. The policy of the modern pirate is now intergovernmental cooperation? I don’t disagree, but not very pirate-y.

In the end, the CDU won the largest share of the votes, with the power coming from more suburban parts of the city, including where we live in the southwest. (One data point – a local parent friend shared that they had NEVER voted CDU, always SPD or Green, but felt that the inner-city Green voters were hypocritical – living in “edge” Kreutzberg and talking big about climate, but owning two cars and sending their kids to private school. So that’s interesting.)

Inside the S-Bahn ring, the Greens were the winners. But the SPD must have been in second place in both areas because their overall share of the vote was the same as the Greens. No one got 50% so we’re waiting to see what will happen with the coalition negotiations – no one will ally with the AFD (9%! Ugh!) but it’s unclear whether the 3 groups on the left have enough votes to form a winning coalition without the CDU.

Graphic of geographic spread of votes (screenshot from the Tagesspiegel)

One thing I appreciate out of all of this is, unlike in the US, the parties have to work together to be in power. There are many choices and none of them feel like all-or-nothing. I am sure many Berlinners would disagree, but in comparison to the US, it does feel so…functional. We’ll see what comes, if it is Zeit Für Jarasch or not!

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