Ortiz: Letters From Berlin, Part 2: To create a coalition

Sterling Ortiz, Columnist

Germany’s election results match conventional wisdom, but how we got there was exciting.

The Social Democratic Party took first nationally and was closely matched by the Union (of the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union), followed by the Greens in third place. The Free Democratic Party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Die Linke followed.

Both the FDP and AfD are right-wing parties. The FDP pretends to be “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” to appeal to Millennial and Generation Z voters, but in practice the party advocates massive tax cuts and immigration restrictions.The AfD is a far-right party that despises the idea of a multicultural Germany and wants the country to stop apologizing for leading the Holocaust and other horrors from World War II. The SPD and Union regularly invite the FDP to coalition discussions, but all parties shun and refuse to coalesce with the AfD. 

On election night, SPD Leader Olaf Scholz declared victory and announced he would like to form a federal coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats. This outcome is what international observers predicted before the election and would flip Germany’s leadership from a center-right partnership to a center-left coalition. This change may be less drastic than going from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden in the United States, especially if the FDP takes the Finance Ministry and implements spending cuts.

Another big national story coming out of Sunday’s elections is the Union parties’ status. On the one hand, coming in a close second was better than polls had predicted — and that I had anticipated. The CDU took a drubbing, losing nearly 50 seats in total, including Merkel’s to a self-described “young socialist” of the SPD. CDU Leader Armin Laschet’s home state of North Rhine-Westphalia also flipped to the SPD, capping a humiliating campaign for Merkel’s supposed successor. In addition, the CSU’s half of the Union only lost one seat in Munich. Markus Söder, the Minister-President of Bavaria and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) analog (in popularity, not in policy), undercut Laschet after the election by stating that Scholz and the SPD earned the right to form a government. I suspect Söder will play a significant role in German politics soon.

As for Berlin City Council, the status quo stayed primarily intact. The SPD won the most votes and seats and looked to continue its coalition with the Greens and Die Linke. Franziska Giffey will be Berlin’s first female mayor. The big stories coming out of the capital city, however, have to do with Die Linke.

Die Linke is a solidly socialist party formed in 2007. The party was initially created to keep the flame of East German socialism alive. That faction within Die Linke still exists, in competition with a second faction that sounds like Democratic Socialists of America members seeking a modern democratic socialist party, without nostalgia for East Germany. 

A party cannot have two strong, competing narratives in its ranks. The voters who approved of Die Linke for its past social conservatism, the same people who liked German socialism because of its prevalent Stasi secret police punishing their enemies, nowadays vote for AfD. One hundred thousand voters made that switch this election. The voters who liked German socialism because the system aimed to improve peoples’ welfare aligned with the left wing of the SPD and Greens; 600,000 voters switched from Linke to SPD, and 440,000 switched from Linke to the Greens. To use my home district, Berlin-Lichtenberg, as an example, voters liked Gesine Lötzsch of Linke enough to vote for her directly to the Bundestag and then voted for SPD as their favorite party. Linke can choose to chase after AfD voters by denouncing a diverse society and pursue socialism for ethnic Germans only, or it can appeal to SPD and Green voters by presenting a clear vision for a socialist, multicultural Germany. It must choose a path to stay relevant.

Linke’s woes run counter to the big referendum vote in Berlin on the Sept. 26, “DW und Co. Enteignen,” where Berliners voted by a 20 point margin to encourage the city to nationalize housing units from all landlords who own more than 3,000 units, primarily Deutsche Wohnen. This measure was supported by Die Linke, the Greens and Berlin unions, while opposed by the SPD, incoming Mayor Giffey and all right-wing parties. Despite SPD’s campaign against the legislation, the “Yes” percentage tracks closely with the combined left-wing vote total.

Now, I want to state the facts about this vote. First of all, it is not legally binding and is unlikely to become law with a mayor cold to this idea. If Berliners wanted immediate nationalization, they would have elected a Green or Linke mayor; and while the Greens rose from the 2017 election, Linke dropped drastically. In practice, this vote signals that existing renters are scared of increasing rents and want the city government to prevent Berlin from having the high rents of New York City or London. It is incumbent upon Giffey and her coalition to cater to these voters and encourage more housing so that Berlin does not become a city encased in amber like Boulder, Colorado, and Evanston are. This referendum is an example that even though the SPD has the most power nationally and in Berlin, there are new challenges and opportunities the party will face while governing.

Sterling Ortiz is a SESP fourth-year. You can contact him at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.