Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
He won the post, came out as gay before the gutter press did the outing for him, turned the city into an undisputable Hub of Coolness and spent 13 years at Berlin´s helm. However, two days ago, on August 26th, Klaus Wowereit, the Governing Mayor of Berlin, announced his resignation.
The reactions to his stepping-down range from gentle melancholy, through mild relief to full-blown glee: in the 13 years of his rule “Wowi” went from being the hippest and the most popular guy in town to a symbol of the city´s biggest failure. The new BER airport in Berlin-Schönefeld meant to replace the current melange of the smaller, former East-West airports failed to take off: the planned opening in 2011 did not happen and it is rather doubtful that the next deadline of 2016 can, indeed, be kept. And so instead of allowing the high-flying politician reach new levels of popularity, the project – in Wowereit´s own words a Chefsache (the boss´thing or the chief thing) – turned into an albatross around the Mayor´s neck.
Sadly, that dead bird is what most media seem to be focusing on in the wake of Wowereit´s announcement. It would be a lie to say that Klaus Wowereit has been nothing but a sunny boy of Berlin´s politics: he can be arrogant or even haughty, according to many critics has hardly had a solid, long-term plan for the city, and his interest in hard-core (read: real) politics seems to be rather limited. Several years ago he kindly declined the opportunity of becoming a Chancellor candidate for the Social-Democratic Party he represents.
But lest we forget, he has also been one of the most senior (in terms of the time spent in office) as well as most popular German politicians at both the local and the state level. In fact, by December 11th, 2014 when he will give his post up Klaus Wowereit will have been the longest-serving head of a German state ever! Berlin, not only a city but also an independent Land, is ruled by the Regierender Bürgermeister since June 2001 and it is three years into his third term that he decided to go. 13 years might not sound like much when compared to Hilmar Moore´s 63 years spent as the Mayor of Richmond, Texas (1949-2012 and re-elected over 30 times) but, with all due respect, who has ever heard of Richmond?
BUT WHAT HAS WOWI DONE FOR US?
Whilst Berlin seems to be on everybody´s lips. The city is perceived as young, creative, open, full of opportunities and fun. Surely, it can also be seen as immature, messy, ridden by all sorts of racial/ethnic/cultural problems and irresponsible with its pocket-money but there is no denying that Klaus Wowereit managed to turn it into a tourist magnet. Only in the first six months of this year it attracted as many as 5.5 m visitors (2 m from abroad). In 2004 the same number of guests was recorded for the whole twelve months. Between 1993 with its moderate 3 million visitors to over 11 million by the end of 2013 the numbers grew almost fourfold. With 500,000 guests per day, Berlin welcomes (statistically speaking, of course) around 1,200 new arrivals every hour (source: the Tagesspiegel, August 23, 2013)!
The city´s owes this irresistible charm first and foremost to its rich cultural offer and the well-functioning infrastructure. Both well developed by the ex-Mayor to-be. Of course, one could again complain about the endless problems with the inner-city traffic (cars vs bikes, too many of both, the S-Bahn won´t run again, etc. etc.) but those are neither Berlin-specific nor sudden nor, let´s be honest, solvable. The city is like a set of Lego blocks – to some degree you can arrange it the way you want. But unlike with Lego, it is not possible to dismantle everything and start anew every time you see your little Lego truck is not going to fit between the buildings.
Berlin experiences the same difficulties that every other congested European metropolis has to fight: little space, lots of buildings and too many people driving too many cars and driving in them alone. Compared to London or Paris or Rome, this city has a fantastically effective and user-friendly city transportation system that will take you home until late at night without your having to cling onto the side of the overcrowded bus or to cough up half of your weekly wages for a taxi.
Whether we like it or not, Klaus Wowereit did, indeed, have his hand in making that possible: the endless reparation works, construction sites and other culprits for traffic-constipation are the price the Berliners pay for having the streets adjusted to their ever-growing needs. And with millions of people flocking to Berlin to visit the newly renovated museums and venues or to have the taste of the “sexy but poor” thing that Wowereit gave the eponymous name to, the city has to be prepared.
THE GOVERNING PARTYMEISTER TIGHTENS THE BELT
This “Arm aber sexy” declaration caused some of the so called serious politicians to stamp Wowereit as a supercilious Lifestyle Politiker (lifestyle politician) whose focus is on the benefits of his job and not on the job itself, reminded the magazine Die Welt in its text of August 26th. Still, although not to everybody´s taste, this affinity for culture and entertainment as well as Wowereit´s “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” approach appealed to Berliners more than the efficient but charmless air of many other front and back bench personalities from the Rathaus. Wowereit won people over by being open, imaginative and, yes, cheeky. He never had any Berührungsängste (being afraid of direct contact with others), seemed to be as comfortable chatting to the US President as to Oma Schmidt from the bakery and was equally cool in the presence of big wigs at a state banquet as he was at a party when handed in a red stiletto to quaf champagne from.
Like in any other relationship, that golden dust might have worn off a bit but the candid and light-footed politician spitefully re-named the Regierende Partymeister (the governing dance master) seemed like a good ambassador for the city literally in bloom and unfolding after years of division and burdened by stiff as well as ineffective inner politics.
But it would be wrong to reduce his image to that of the party-Mayor or of the “First Gay Guy in the Village” – in June 2001 Wowereit famously outed himself as homosexual by announcing: “Ich bin schwul und das ist auch gut so, Genossen und Genossinen!” (I am gay and there is nothing wrong about that, comrades!) His government managed to reduce the staggering 21.5% unemployment in 2005 to 13.9% in 2013/2014. Not bad for a city whose main source of income are, among little else, tourism and service industry.
He kicked up some dust in the process, too: no sooner had Klaus Wowereit been sworn in as the new Governing Mayor than he dismantled the ruling- and sullied by financial scandals -Grand Coalition of CDU-SPD (the Christian-Democrats and the Social-Democrats). Instead, he made SPD close ranks with another “red” partner, PDS (the Party of Democratic Socialism, since 2007 known as Die Linke or “The Left”). The Red-Red Coalition, painted as the devil himself in the city that had seen the end of its communist decades only five minutes earlier, was a surprise. But one that worked until 2011.
Although a Social Democrat himself, Klaus Wowereit did not hesitate to go all Prussian and pull the belt tight where the city finances were concerned. His policy of Sparen bis es quitscht (reduce the costs till you can hear the squeaking) introduced under his new Secretary of Finance Thilo Sarrazin (a skilled economist later discredited by his controversial views on immigration) cost thousands of public servants their cosy jobs in the mouldy but warm belly of the city administration. Suffice to say, it did not improve his ratings, especially in the former West Berlin where the cuts were the deepest.
Those were not the only cut-backs either: the reduction of social benefits, selling out of the city-owned flats (110,000 so far) with higher rents (even up to over 20%) for those the city decided to keep and the cessation of any state subsidies for further 28,000 apartments. With time, the money was indeed being saved and the squeaking got louder. But after several years of trimming and tweaking in 2007/2008 the state of Berlin could finally begin the repayment of its doubts. In 2014 with €60.39 m to go it might not seem like a great achievement but state finances are always a balancing act whose true meaning or indeed missed opportunities become clear only in hindsight.
When asked whether they thought Wowereit was right to resign, almost 70% of the Berliners polled by the local news show RBB-Abendschau together with the “Berliner Morgenpost” responded with “yes”. 18% considered his decision to be wrong. It is true that at 21% in the popularity rankings “Wowi” has not been the high-flyer of yonder any more. But despite all the things that went wrong in his time as the Mayor, it is important not to forget about all the things that went right. And judging by the way, for example, Berlin´s start-up scene develops – with all those creative, active people attracted to Berlin by Wowereit´s politics – as well as looking at Berlin simply as a place to live, one must admit that some of his plans did kick in and that the city will keep profiting from it for another while.
Berlin might not have its new airport yet and the latest joke might be that, like with the BER, Wowereit´s resignation has also been delayed until 2016, but nobody in this city can honestly say that all was bad with Wowi at the helm. Some of it was good, some of it was bad. But all in all, the guy did his job. Und das ist auch gut so.