Local politics in Berlin

Somewhere between language proficiency levels C1 and C2 lies a plateau that I’m finding difficult to cross in German. Living in Berlin I’m simply not exposed to enough of the language on a day to day basis. The usual advice would be to join a Verein and hang out with Germans. That sounds fun but I’m not in the market for a new hobby.

I’m going to approach it from another direction by becoming kind of politically active. I don’t think people of my generation will become members of political parties much again. I also don’t have much of an interest in political work. I do want to figure out why things work the way they do. If nothing else I hope it makes me a better citizen and improves my German.

To do this I’m going to attend events of the two major progressive parties around: die Grüne (the Greens) and die Linke (the Left). There have been local elections last month and both parties are likely to enter in a coalition with the SPD and rule, so it is an exciting time to dive in.

I’ve now attended one event by each and here’s a quick write-up.

die Grüne

A while back just after the September election I attended an event by my local Green chapter. It was fun to see all the people I knew from the campaign posters gathered in one place. In general they’re nice people of the kind that I would normally hang out with anyway.

The Greens were peeved that they’d suffered a loss but not super peeved. They are still the biggest party in Friedrichshain/Kreuzberg and they will likely get to govern Berlin as a whole as well.

I’d attribute that loss to a campaign that felt complacent and did not have a strong narrative to address economic justice issues. Rent and income disparities in Berlin are on the rise which makes them the most important political issue here. I see the Greens focused more on social justice, environmental and quality life issues.

The Greens may really not have to worry since the more an area gentrifies, the more it seems to vote green. Berlin as a whole will definitely continue to gentrify.

die Linke

Last Saturday I finally found a Linke event that I could attend which happened to be the education session for their locally elected representatives. Each borough in Berlin is governed by a BVV (Bezirksverordnetenversammlung) which is the lowest level of representation and the only one I am allowed to vote for in Germany1. This event was meant to give the newly elected legal and administrative foundations to help them through the next five years.

I showed up2 this Saturday morning at 09:00 for a four hour lecture. Some thirty people, mostly newly elected Linke BVV representatives but also some stray SPD/Grüne members, were there. I wouldn’t say the Linke is a more representative cross-section of Berlin but it seems somewhat more social-economically diverse.

A session like this is not the recommended way to get acquainted with a party, but it proved to be very educational if you enjoy twisted, complicated things. I had some rough ideas of what the BVV can and cannot do and this lecture filled in the blanks. My preconceived notions notions were confirmed (as they too often are).

The main problems are as follows:

The BVV is not authorized to do anything. From the handout I got: the boroughs are not a legal entity and they have no rights to set budgets or to create statutes. This means they have no actual responsibilities and cannot determine anything. They are fully beholden to the state of Berlin (every borough has the suffix ‘von Berlin’). BVV work seems to revolve around applying whatever little agency you can find or whip up.

The BVV is a huge amount of work. What I gathered from the Grüne meeting as well is that the workload for local representatives is ridiculous even by German standards. Just the committee meetings on weekday evenings take a lot of time. Add to that the various other meetings and all the preparation that goes into them and it looks like a full-time job (but it isn’t). Being a BVV member is a voluntary position that is nominally compensated (with some €500/month). I have no clue why people would volunteer to do this.

The BVV is a democratic distraction. I got the idea that the various levels of government do not communicate with each other that much. As said the BVV is the lowest level and has near zero power but it is the place where democracy connects with citizen’s lives. If you interrogate the BVV about something in the city not working properly, they’ll usually answer that they’re not zuständig (not competent). Both hearing that things are the fault of the senate and having to tell people that, get really annoying really fast for everybody. The BVV functions as a democratic pretense that allows the state government to do its thing without being bothered by people3.

  1. Don’t even get me started on this. European citizens get to vote for cities in Germany but Berlin is not a city but a state. The equivalent of a city in Berlin is the Bezirk (borough) but it cannot do any of the things a regular city would be able to do.
  2. 90% of local politics is showing up.
  3. And of course the way this is setup is fully intentional. During the session there was some debate about how to fix this dysfunction. One way would be to give local government actual and clear power and responsibility. That seems extremely unlikely. There’s also very sound reasons not to give groups of amateurs the keys to city administration. Abolishing this level of government is something that nobody wants to discuss because you are destroying the hobbies of 12×55=660 people but it seems like it should be on the table as well.

2 thoughts on “Local politics in Berlin”

  1. The Hamburg one has a far more reasonable name Bezirksversammlung and Bremen has Beiräte (source). But yes, probably roughly similar with lots of local nuances in the way the laws are drafted exactly.

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