Replacing 'Wowi'

Berlin, Safe and Bland

Wowi Müller DPA
It's all yours. Soon to be former Mayor Klaus Wowereit and his replacement Michael Müller.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Berlin’s new mayor will be the premier one of Germany’s 16 federal states in a job that has often been seen as a springboard to the national political stage.

  • Facts


    • Klaus Wowereit will step down on December 11, 2014 after 13 years in office.
    • Michael Müller won an internal SPD vote to replace him by 59.1 percent.
    • Former Berlin mayors include Willy Brandt, chancellor from 1969 to 1974, and Richard von Weizsäcker, president from 1984 to 1994.
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Klaus Wowereit, the man who coined Berlin’s catchphrase “poor but sexy,” will be stepping down as the city’s mayor on December 11, after 13 years in power. This weekend, his Social Democrat party picked his successor: the city’s housing and development minister, Michael Müller.

And the contrast couldn’t be starker. Mr. Wowereit was sometimes flamboyant, often aggressive, and never boring. His successor, meanwhile, is mild mannered, uncharismatic but hard working, almost the quintessential faceless bureaucrat.

Yet after over a decade of a lot of show, and in particularly a very noticeably uncompleted airport, perhaps Berliners will be happy with some substance.

That at least seems to be what the Social Democrats are banking on. Mr. Müller surprisingly won the initial vote outright, getting the backing of 59.1 percent of party delegates on Saturday, thus avoiding a second head-to-head vote.

Up to now, Mr. Müller has been responsible for housing and city development. It is a key role in a city that is seeing its numbers swell and many inhabitants complaining about rapidly rising rents, and he is expected to prioritize housing issues as mayor.

He will also be expected to clarify when exactly the BER international airport, originally slated to open in June 2012, will open. And he has to tackle Berlin’s still relatively high unemployment level of 10.8 percent, almost double the national average of 6.5 percent. Berlin also has massive debts of around €60 billion ($76 billion), which gives the city administration little leeway for spending.

Looking beyond local politics, the Berlin mayoral job is not a small one. The city state of Berlin is one of Germany’s 16 federal states. And as such the mayor is essentially the equivalent of a state premier. Each state is represented in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament.

And many illustrious careers have begun in the Berlin mayor office, such as those of the former chancellor, Willy Brandt, and former president, Richard von Weizsäcker.

“People are expecting that he will tackle Berlin’s problems, without glamor, but with diligence and perseverance.”

Gero Neugebauer, Political scientist, Free University in Berlin

Yet, it is unlikely that Mr. Müller is going to use the Berlin role as a springboard for a national career.

While Mr. Wowereit had been talked about as a possible chancellor candidate, particularly among the left of the Social Democrats, the airport debacle, in particular, put paid to those national ambitions.

Mr. Müller’s main challenge will be holding on to power in Berlin, which will go to the polls in autumn 2016, rather than having any aspirations beyond the city.

“His first challenge is Berlin, and there is no second challenge for him,” Gero Neugebauer, a professor of political science at the Free University in Berlin, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “He has two years to prove himself.”

Politically, Mr. Müller’s task is to ensure that the SPD catches up with the Christian Democrats, with which it shares power in a left-right coalition. While the SPD won more votes in the 2011 election, it is currently trailing the CDU in the polls.

The party was forced to pick a new leader in the middle of the election cycle after Mr. Wowereit announced his resignation in August. That was not a huge surprise, following repeated criticism of the delays in the construction of a new international airport on the border between Berlin and the state of Brandenburg which surrounds the city. There is still no clear indication of when the airport will eventually open. In 2013 Mr. Wowereit resigned as chairman of the airport’s supervisory board.


Wowereit at his own personal albatross, the BER airport. Source: DPA


He was also criticized for not doing enough to curb the rising cost of accommodation in the city. And his glamorous lifestyle and penchant for hanging out with celebrities at high-profile events did not go down well in this often scruffy and still largely poor city.

At the same time, Mr. Wowereit had his successes. He oversaw soaring tourism, an important economic boost to a city that lacks a significant industry and he has encouraged the emergence of Berlin as an important technology hub in the city, dubbed Silicon Allee by some.

And Mr. Müller has had his own setbacks, failing to win a city-wide referendum on the development of the former airport at Tempelhof earlier this year.

Nonetheless, Mr. Müller seemed to impress his fellow Social Democrats, convincingly beating his two challengers. And he has improved his somewhat dry communication skills and even managed to poke fun at his own lackluster public profile.

“I admit that there is still some work to do on the glamor factor,” he said during the campaign for the party backing.

The SPD, it seems, was above all looking for a safe pair of hands, and hoping that the choice goes down well with the electorate.

“People are expecting that he will tackle Berlin’s problems without glamor, but with diligence and perseverance,” said Mr. Neugebauer. “It remains to be seen if he can create some kind of future prospects for the city. To fight a good campaign he will have to show that he is not just a good administrator, but also has a political vision.”


Siobhán Dowling is an editor for Handelsblatt Global Edition, reports on politics and has lived in Berlin for over 12 years. To contact the author:

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