Political Passing

For Berlin's Departing Mayor, a Hasty, Ignominious Exit

Wowi is going, and that's a good thing for Berlin.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Mr. Wowereit, Germany’s longest-serving state premier, gave Berlin a sense of levity, but he has failed to lead and is responsible for the city’s disastrously delayed new airport.

  • Facts


    • Mr. Wowereit was Germany’s first openly gay state premier.
    • Berlin’s new airport, once expected to open in 2012, has been delayed several times.
    • Germany’s capital has public debt totaling €70 billion.
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Not many politicians can say they have coined a phrase that has captured the public’s imagination. But Berlin’s entertaining mayor, Klaus Wowereit, can claim two.

His personal declaration, “I’m gay, and that’s a good thing,” and his unofficial city motto “Berlin is poor, but sexy,” have been quoted time and again. And that will remain the case, even now that the German capital’s political aphorist has announced that he will resign this December.

But that’s probably the most positive thing that can be said about the 13 years the Social Democrat spent in office. The party is over, and now there’s a big hangover. Mr. Wowereit’s political performance  which produced a steady dose of fun for our entertainment-craving society  eventually failed to titillate anyone anymore.

Mr. Wowereit was a charmer who lost the charm behind his smile.

The show finally came to an end with the failure of his most important project, Berlin’s much-delayed new international airport. Always free from any doubt, Mr. Wowereit elatedly believed that his own popularity would fix the situation. Making himself chairman of the airport’s supervisory board, he disastrously opted to forgo having a general contractor and decided instead to entrust the building of the airport to a state-owned company.

But for once it wasn’t about just managing a city parade – it was about economic necessity and national prestige. Mr. Wowereit’s stay in city hall had become more untenable each time the opening of Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport was delayed. Postponed four times and hopelessly over-budget, the project is now expected to cost €5.4 billion. And it’s still uncertain whether the terminal building will have to be completely torn down in the end.

Mr. Wowereit managed to cling to office, but it didn’t do any good. He was out of favor with the Berliners and even his fellow center-left Social Democrats. And those in the rest of the country started to consider him a character in a big city musical.

In just a few years, Mr. Wowereit went from everybody’s darling to the least popular politician in Berlin, and that, too, became a show.

In the end, the bad feelings left by the bungled airport project were so great that the citizens of Berlin voted down plans to develop the airfield of the now closed Tempelhof Airport. With that, Mr. Wowereit stopped shaping the city’s politics.

No matter how good his intentions were and how deeply he buried himself in the details, the protestors outside City Hall no longer considered him capable of turning things around. And despite serving longer than any other German state premier, he never made the leap to the national stage.

The native Berliner, who marketed himself a “leftie,” was not cabinet material for his fellow SPD members, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder or Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel. He delighted in the brief buzz that he could be a candidate for Germany’s largely ceremonial presidential post, or even chancellor, but this chatter quickly disappeared.

The fact that Berlin has profited from tourism is not necessarily the work of the mayor, who was intoxicated with the feeling that the whole world was in love with the German capital.

What remained was an increasingly irritated Mr. Wowereit, who, shortly after his 60th birthday, saw the last chance to take the initiative. Rather than being chased from office, this man of humble beginnings, this agile lawyer, who for so many years embodied the unbearable lightness of being, can now fulfill his often-expressed wish to travel more.

The left-wingers and alternative-types in Berlin have made him responsible for the city’s rising rents and for the disappearing souls of its neighborhoods. The city’s mainstream citizens, for their part, gave up all hope of anything getting done. No one can win elections like that.

Mr. Wowereit was a charmer who lost the charm behind his smile.

He was someone who, in the bitterly cold winter of 2010 told Berliners, who had been falling down on icy, unshoveled city sidewalks, that things weren’t that bad, that they lived in Berlin, not Haiti.

He was someone who kept his culture minister in his post, even though he admitted to having hidden €425,000 in a Swiss bank account.

The fact that Berlin has profited from tourism is not necessarily the work of the mayor, who was intoxicated with the feeling that the whole world was in love with the German capital.

He achieved little in industry, education and research, and the city’s public debt remains at an unbelievable €70 billion. The man who was once known as “Wowi,” which is pronounced as “Vovi” in German, was content to manage the city’s stagnation.

The consequences will be felt in 2019, when Germany readjusts its financial solidarity payments between its poorer and richer states. Mr. Wowereit will undoubtedly be relaxed as he watches the fiscal pain dispatched upon the city from afar.

After all, he coined two fabulous phrases. 

This article was translated by Mary Beth Warner. To contact the author: jakobs@handelsblatt.com

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