In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the governing Social Democrat (SPD)s got whipped, to the tune of a 10 percent drop at the polls. In Berlin, by contrast, the SPD picked up 1.1 percent, received the most votes of any party, and now has the option of continuing its coalition with the Left (PDS) or forming a new one with the Greens. (Behind the SPD, the big winners in Berlin were the Greens — up to 13.1 percent from 9.1 percent — and “other” — parties that did not top the 5-percent hurdle collectively accounted for 13.8 percent of the vote.) Like its northern neighbor, Berlin has high unemployment. It also has a crushing debt that is slowly being worked out through budget consolidation and deals with the national government. It also still has lingering constraints from the old days (personnel appointed for life, pensions for former GDR bureaucrats, possibly some remaining double institutions). In short, economically Berlin is the kind of place that turfs out governments on a regular basis, particularly given voter volatility in postcommunist societies. Yet, the SPD-led government was not only re-elected, its share of votes even increased modestly. Why?
Klaus Wowereit, in short. He out-polled his rival, Friedbert Pflueger (CDU), 61-22 among voters asked who they preferred as mayor. Wowereit did better in personal sympathy, closeness to voters, credibility, energy and expertise. Across the board, really.
(Pflueger is not a bad guy, as CDU candidates go; friends of mine worked for him some time back, and in the Bundestag his strong points were foreign policy, especially transatlantic issues. What he’s doing running for mayor is one of those mysteries of parliamentary systems. Plus he had to fight the perception that the CDU is a Western party, plus apparently a bunch of local feuds within the party.)
Any SPD state leader who gets re-elected in the current climate will be mooted as a candidate for Chancellor, elections not due until 2009. The New York Times coyly only wonders about a “greater national role.” Still, it’s fair to wonder if Wowereit can follow in Willy Brandt’s footsteps. The SPD bench is not terribly deep just now. At the beginning of the Schroeder Chancellorship, the party governed in more states than it does now, and over the course of the Red-Green coalition, a number of state premiers joined the cabinet. (Hans Eichel from Hesse, for example, and Wolfgang Clement from North Rhine-Westfalia) So the roster of plausible candidates is not such a long list. Plus Wowereit’s location puts him in direct contact with the currents of national politics in a way that, say, the Mayor of Bremen is not. He’s 52 now, which would make him prime Chancellor age when the next campaign rolls around.
Still, if he wants the top job in German politics, he has quite a way to go. Saying he wants a bigger voice for Berlin on the national stage is par for the course. He would be remiss in his duties as Mayor if he said anything else. Becoming the SPD candidate for Chancellor would mean navigating the mine fields of interest group politics within the party. It would mean crafting a new image, a transition from jovial and colorful to statesmanlike. And it would mean squarely facing the question of whether Germany is ready for a gay Chancellor.
From my perch in a liberal city within a conservative state, I think Wowereit’s orientation would not be much of a hindrance. The former leader of one of the parties on the right side of the aisle is also gay, and he would have been a deputy Chancellor, had Stoiber won in 2002. The people who are adamantly opposed to equal treatment for homosexual citizens are not only relatively few, they are not about to vote SPD anyway. Wowereit famously came out at a trade union congress. Before his announcement, he was thought rather bland; his revelation was greeted with cheers from the blue-collar audience.
If any inherent characteristic is a problem for Wowereit, it’s his geographic origin. Berlin is the big bad city, and it’s not clear that what plays well there will play in Unterpodunk am Fluss. Wowereit would be a fun candidate, and if he can solve more of Berlin’s problems over the next four years, maybe even a plausible one.