Letter from Berlin: Star Candidate’s Gaffes Have Berlin Greens Jittering

The Greens had assumed that a high profile candidate like former minister Renate Künast would assure them of victory in next September’s state elections in Berlin. However, a series of gaffes has led the party’s once soaring popularity to plummet.

At one end of Berlin’s central boulevard Unter den Linden stands the Rotes Rathaus or Red Town Hall, the seat of Berlin’s city-state government. Just over two kilometers to the west, beyond the Brandenburg Gate, is Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag.

It is a journey Green Party heavyweight Renate Künast made almost 10 years ago, when she went from being a state representative to an increasingly influential presence in the halls of federal power. Now, though, she is hoping to return to the Rotes Rathaus — as Germany’s first-ever state premier from the Green Party.

Until recently, it looked as if she would have little trouble. When she announced her candidacy with much fanfare at Berlin’s Communications Museum on Nov. 7, her party was eight percentage points ahead of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in the opinion polls. A third term for Klaus Wowereit, the SPD mayor who has led Berlin since 2001, seemed unlikely.Künast’s campaign, though, has not gotten off to a good start. A series of gaffes have called into question the wisdom of parachuting the star politician back into the rough and tumble of Berlin’s regional politics. The latest polls put the Greens and the SPD neck-and-neck at 27 percent. Furthermore, if there were a direct election for mayor, 50 percent say they would vote for Wowereit while only 31 percent would give Künast their vote.

Paying Attention?

Künast, who was agriculture minister from 2001 to 2005 in the government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder — and is currently one of two Green party floor leaders in the Bundestag — has earned a reputation for straight talking. But her initial forays on the stump would make it seem that she has not been paying much attention to Berlin state politics while in the Bundestag.

Her suggestion that Berlin impose a speed-limit of just 30 kilometers per hour was immediately criticized as unrealistic and has allowed Wowereit to position himself as a defender of motorists. She also brought up the possibility of scrapping the gynamsium, the elite high schools, in Berlin, hardly likely to go down well with the predominantly well-educated and middle-class Green party supporters. Furthermore, she said that one of the city’s biggest problems was a lack of kindergarten or daycare places — a national problem to be sure, but not in Berlin.

But the most glaring example of her tone-deaf pronouncements were comments relating to Berlin-Brandenburg International, the airport currently under construction on the southeastern edge of the city. In a radio interview she said: “We must first of all have a debate about what kind of airport we want — a big international hub or a European connection.” The comments seemed aimed at appealing to disgruntled residents in those areas affected by new flight paths. But her sudden entry into a discussion which has been raging for years has led to consternation both inside and outside the party.

Indeed, the airport plans have long been finalized and the new facility is due to open in 2012. Berlin’s Greens have accepted that the massive project will attract much needed jobs and investment to the city, which still has one of the country’s highest unemployment rates. They have been making strides in recent years to present themselves as having a political vision that goes beyond their environmental and anti-nuclear power roots.

By seeking to reopen the airport debate, Künast seemed either to be unaware of how far along plans already were or to be ignoring the on-the-ground knowledge and expertise of her own colleagues in Berlin. It particularly bothered those within the party who have been painstakingly trying to make sure the party is taken seriously by business as competent economic managers.

Tapping into Disenchantment

There are even reports of internal Green party grumbling about how she was chosen to be the candidate — with no real selection process following much media speculation about a possible Künast vs. Wowereit clash of the titans.

The Greens may be forgiven for having seen the combative and popular Künast as a sure-fire way of sealing their victory in Berlin. They have been hoping that her star quality could help them ride the crest of their growing popularity across the country. Nationally the Greens have seen their support soaring to around 20 percent in opinion polls in recent months, as it profits from disenchantment with the other parties.

The Greens could even be poised to head up the government in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg. The state capital Stuttgart has seen middle-class voters join protests against the planned underground train station, and the Greens have successfully harnessed the fury against the way the state government, controlled by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, have handled the project, known as Stuttgart 21. Baden-Württemberg goes to the polls in March, and that election could have serious consequences on the national level were the CDU to lose badly. Even Merkel’s position could be vulnerable if her party loses a state it has controlled since 1953.

The Greens are also tapping into many Germans’ deep-seated opposition to nuclear energy. The decision by Merkel’s government, a coalition of her Christian Democrats and the business-friendly Free Democrats, to extend the lifespans of the country’s 17 nuclear reactors has galvanized the country’s environmentalists.

And Berlin’s Greens are hoping to profit from this renaissance. The city has long been a stronghold for the Greens, with the party’s only directly elected member of the Bundestag, Hans-Christian Ströbele, representing its Kreuzberg district.

A Boost for Wowereit

Künast cut her teeth in Berlin state politics. The 54-year-old politician moved to Berlin in 1976 when she was in her early 20s, working as a social worker before retraining as a lawyer. She joined the Alternative Liste in 1979, a group which later merged with the Greens, and was a member of the state parliament from 1985 to 2000. Her high profile and Berlin pedigree had seemed to make her an ideal candidate to take on the popular and equally ambitious Wowereit.

While her campaign so far has been far from glowing, Sept. 18, 2011 is still a long way off. She could bounce back in the polls or she could get herself into further hot water. Die Welt reports that Wowereit recently said privately: “Just let Künast speak. The more she talks the better.”

The growing unease over her candidacy have given Wowereit, who Künast has accused of being unmotivated, something of a boost. Having been criticized for his poor handling of months of snow and ice last winter, the mayor is in fighting form, seeing his chances of re-election suddenly much improved.

He has lashed out at the Greens, saying they only act in the interests of their clientele, who he described as “well educated, often double-income households, who can and want to buy certain things,” adding: “The Greens are not interested if many people in the city cannot afford a rent hike of a euro per square meter for a 70 square-meter flat, because their clientele can.”

And Künast’s indications that she would only move from federal to regional politics if she is elected mayor is also something that Wowereit has pounced on saying she should decide between the Bundestag and Berlin.

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