Berlin, in the days before the state elections this coming Sunday, is not a happy city. Alexanderplatz is still thronged with tourists, and clubs east and west are still living up to their well-deserved reputation; but this is a city which is showing all the signs of having had enough of being ‘poor but sexy.’

It was Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s mayor since 2001, who coined that now famous phrase back in 2003. Herr Wowereit’s political career has been a great success story for the Social Democratic party, and up until now the SPD’s current election slogan of ‘Berlin verstehen’ (Understanding Berlin) seems to have been justified.

Events over the summer suggest, however, that the charm of being poor but sexy may have its limits – a well-attended rally in Kreuzberg and Neukölln last week  demonstrated the anger Berliners are feeling towards high rents and the gentrification of once cheap housing areas. Indeed, ‘tip Berlin’, established as a guide to Berlin’s cultural highlights, led this fortnight with a cover showing a red fist punching through the window of a house. Add to this the torching of around 400 cars in Berlin already this year  and Berlin’s complex political situation starts to look rather dramatic.

This drama will not be reflected at the state elections this Sunday, however. Polls suggest that the SPD will again return the largest share of the vote,  and that the real news will be the possibility of a new coalition partner. Die Linke, a party which regards itself as firmly to the left of the SPD, is the current partner ensuring control of the ‘Rotes Rathaus,’ – Berlin’s red brick town hall – but has fared poorly in recent polls compared to the predicted 20 per cent share of the Green party. 

Renate Künast, the Green’s mayoral candidate, is hoping that a campaign based not solely on environmental issues but also on schools, living costs, and on closing the gap between Berlin’s rich and poor, will strike a chord with those who feel disaffected by the current regime.  This has proven to be a successful strategy during a very strong year for the Greens – they took control of the southern state of Baden Wuerttemberg in a coalition with the SPD , and achieved representation in all 16 German state legislatures for the first time. Die Linke, in sharp contrast, have had the divisions within their own party widely publicised, with many believing that their coalition with the SPD has weakened their core support and the very essence of their party.

Germany’s newspapers may be diligently covering the election, but with little gusto – ‘Der Tagesspiegel’ does not even feign interest, disregarding the elections as largely irrelevant.  The dangers of this apathy are obvious, and stretch beyond the demise of the leftwing coalition currently ruling Berlin. In September 2006 Udo Voigt, leader of the far-right National Democratic party of Germany, was elected as a member of the Berlin municipal government to represent Treptow-Köpenick district – representing a party which considers Rudolf Hess to be a martyr and upon Barack Obama’s election in 2008 published a pamphlet entitled ‘Africa Conquers the White House,’ which referred to his election as the result of ‘the American alliance of Jews and Negroes’.

The NPD may be unlikely to reach the necessary five per cent threshold for representation to the House of Deputies, but the desire for an alternative is increasingly obvious in Berlin – the ‘Pirate party’ may well reach the necessary percentage of the vote. Once marketed as the party for disaffected young people tired of the established political parties, the Pirate party has portrayed itself as pro-business – but has led a campaign heavy on PR and remarkably light on substance. Any elected representative of the Pirate Party would be a loose cannon, with no real manifesto on social issues to abide by, at a time when Berlin is crying out for serious social action.

Germany’s leftwing parties have to reconcile this odd paradox in Berlin – Berliners are far from content, and yet many feel disenfranchised in the upcoming elections. Die Linke and the SPD have to prove that the still ‘understand Berlin,’ and can represent low-income earners disproportionately affected by the increased cost of living. Otherwise Berlin will look elsewhere for its leaders – this city is proud to be sexy, but tired of being poor.

Jack Tunmore is a member of Progress