April 28, 2023 - 4:15pm

From gay officials to net-zero proposals, Berlin has often been a bellwether for wider trends in Germany. The election of a new conservative mayor on Thursday — the first in more than two decades —  might well be an indicator of how the country is governed going forward.

For those who missed it, Berlin had to rerun local elections in February, after the city government botched the original process in the autumn of 2021. Although the centre-Left coalition retained enough seats to rule, after a long internal debate and a vote among its members Berlin’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) decided to ditch both the Left and the Greens for a coalition with the centre-Right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). This was a direct consequence of the party leadership realising that they have shifted too far to the Left, losing ground especially in the working-class districts of Berlin which are economically Left-leaning but culturally conservative. 

But that’s not all. The AfD (Alternative for Germany) declared its support for the new mayor Kai Wegner before the final vote, an awkward outcome given that the other parties had previously vowed not to cooperate with the Right-wingers or lean on its members for votes. The mere suggestion of help from the party — whose youth wing was this week labelled an “extremist group that threatens the constitution” by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency — could be electorally harmful. 

What all of this shows, however, is that, despite suspicions of extremism, the AfD’s influence is growing. In the state of Tühringen, recent polls have the party in an indisputable lead, and at a federal level it is becoming entrenched as the third largest party with 16% support, ahead of the Greens (14.5%) and within striking distance of the Social Democrats (20%). 

Ironically, the supposedly reactionary party has in some areas successfully anticipated changes in public attitudes. For one thing, the AfD has always been the most pro-nuclear political force in Germany — even when the stance was unpopular. At a time when most Germans worry about the cost of living, and as they are becoming increasingly critical of climate activism, the political fringe often finds itself more in sync with popular opinion than the moderate parties. 

This is not only true for Social Democrats, but also for the CDU. It has not been forgotten that many problems, from migration to the phasing out of nuclear energy, started under the chancellorship of Angela Merkel. The AfD might be ostracised, but it is often perceived as the only truly conservative party, not to mention the most effective use of a protest vote. This could turn out to be a powerful combination in future elections. It’s worth remembering that in the early 2000s both the SPD and CDU had vote shares in the high 30s, compared to 20% (SPD) and 27.5% (CDU/CSU) today. 

Berlin encapsulates the idea that if governments are incapable of reacting to swings in public sentiment and create an impression of incompetence, it is alternative parties which stand to benefit. In recent years trust in all political institutions has dropped significantly, and there are no indicators that this trend will be reversed any time soon. The next federal elections are scheduled for October 2025 — and if Berlin is any indicator we can expect both a rerun of the grand coalition and the AfD providing headaches as the largest opposition party. In their role as parliamentary mischief-makers, they will only gain further influence.