Repeat Election in Berlin Speaks to the ‘Chaos’ Many Residents Feel

BERLIN — The city’s airport came in more than $4 billion over budget and nine years late. Then there is the chronic housing shortage, the overcrowded schools and the crumbling subway system. If all of that is not enough to dispel any notion that Berlin is a model of efficiency, then maybe this Sunday’s court-ordered repeat election is.

The vote is meant to make right the many things that went wrong in September 2021, when city and district governments were up for election but there were too few ballots and polling booths, leading to long lines at polling stations, amid the confusion of roads closed because of the Berlin Marathon.

That election was annulled last year, and a panel of judges ordered a new vote, a first in modern German history. (Federal elections, also held that day, will not be done over on Sunday.) When the ballots are cast this time, there will be outside observers from the European Council, the top human rights panel on the continent — the sort of monitoring more typically done in places where there is fear of vote tampering or intimidation.

“Berlin is unfortunately turning into a ‘chaos city’ — starting with politics,” Markus Söder, the belligerent governor of Bavaria, who appears to relish attacking the politics of the German capital, said recently.

The disputed 2021 election was a win for the Social Democrats, the party of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, which has been running Berlin’s government for 22 years. Franziska Giffey became the first woman elected the city’s mayor, and she formed a coalition with the Greens and the far-left Die Linke party.

A crowded evening commute on Thursday at the Alexanderplatz stop.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times
Train access cut off because of construction repairs at the Nordbahnhof station.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times

But current polls have the conservative party in the lead ahead of Sunday’s election, and 68 percent of Berliners say their trust in their political institutions has declined since the last vote, according to a recent poll.

Facing a major housing crisis, the city of 3.8 million is short about 125,000 apartments. Schools are understaffed, and parts of the public transportation system are offline for extensive repairs. Construction sites can snarl busy streets for months, if not longer. Major building permits can take years to process. And city services can be glacially slow, with some Berliners complaining that it can take months to get appointments for something as simple as registering a new address.

“What I hate is the chaos, especially when it comes to the bureaucracy,” said Silvia Scheerer, 64, dressed in an elegant black fur-trimmed winter coat and waiting patiently for the subway, at a spot where since October trains have been running on a reduced schedule.

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A social worker who regularly deals with city workers in her job, she says she sees how swamped they are.

“It’s worse than it’s ever been,” said Ms. Scheerer, who spent half of her life in Communist East Germany, where she said the city bureaucracy and transportation actually worked quite well.

A construction site in Berlin on Thursday. It’s not uncommon for such work to disrupt busy streets for months at a time.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times
Morning traffic on the A100 highway on a recent weekday.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times

Part of the problem is how city government is structured. At the top level, the city is run by a mayor and senators who are elected by a city Parliament, similar to a state house in other German states. Below that are 12 district councils, each headed by a district mayor.

“‘I am not in charge of that, I am not responsible for this’ and always pointing to somewhere else — that’s a classic in Berlin,” said Lorenz Maroldt, the editor in chief of the Berlin daily newspaper Tagesspiegel and a longtime chronicler of city politics and their dysfunction.

This complex approach to governing makes building a single bike path that crosses several districts a nightmare, says Stefanie Remlinger, the district mayor of Mitte, in Central Berlin, which has nearly 388,000 citizens and 2,000 district staff members to handle their needs.

A factor in both the housing and school crises: Berlin has absorbed thousands of new residents and refugees in recent years. Ms. Remlinger’s district currently has 55 schools; it needs five additional ones, she said, just to accommodate all of the newly arriving children.

Stefanie Remlinger, the district mayor of Mitte, in her office.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times
A visualization of the movement of rental bicycles in Berlin. The city’s complex system of governing makes it hard to do something like build a single bike path across several districts.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times

“Since 2015 we’ve been in crisis mode,” Ms. Remlinger said. “We’ve had a major refugee crisis to deal with, corona, the war, and with it another refugee crisis and inflation.”

As in many other countries, workers are striking for better wages. This past week, both educators and other public-sector workers walked off their jobs over several days, meaning garbage piled up, medical procedures were rescheduled and students were not taught.

Jochen Christiansen, 59, a sanitation worker, moved to West Berlin in the 1980s to avoid military service, as men living in the city were exempt from West Germany’s draft. Four decades ago, he said, the city worked: Rent was affordable, the schools were fully staffed and the bureaucracy was efficient.

During a recent protest of city workers demanding a pay raise of 10.5 percent, he showed little sympathy for the city’s history of undertaking big-budget projects, like the beleaguered new airport, while neglecting its salaried public-sector workers.

“I think it’s important to show that we’ll defend ourselves,” he said as he marched with a crowd of 2,500 public workers through central Berlin.

A protest by public-sector workers in Berlin on Thursday.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times
Ralf Kleindiek is Berlin’s first chief digital officer.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times

But if many of Berlin’s challenges seem not unexpected for a European capital city dealing with new arrivals, inflation and a shortage of skilled workers, the failure to run an election crystallized the feeling that the administration could do better.

“The vote itself might be one of the most instructive lessons on how this city doesn’t work,” said Ralf Kleindiek, who has taken on the formidable task of trying to bring the administration into the 21st century as its first chief digital officer.

But luckily, says Mr. Maroldt, the newspaper editor, the city’s many problems have not robbed it of its many charms.

“Despite its best efforts,” he said, “politics has not managed to spoil the fun of Berlin for most people.”

Closed streets and construction work have become common sights in Berlin.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times
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