Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Electorally, the city’s East-West separation remains almost as clear as ever.
Sunday’s election was a tumultuous one for Germany. Nationally, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) saw its share of the vote shrink, while the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) scored their worst result since World War II. Most alarmingly, however, was the success of the extreme-right nationalist party AfD (“Alternative for Deutschland"), which gained its first seats in the national parliament after a campaign that was typified by xenophobia and hate speech.
This stark national picture was mirrored quite clearly in Berlin, still Germany’s largest city by far. Here too the CDU’s votes fell somewhat, the Social Democrats plummeted even more steeply, and the AfD also saw large gains. Within city limits, however, there’s another trend that is deeply rooted and glaring for anyone who knows the city. Politically, Berlin remains overwhelmingly divided along the line of the Berlin Wall.
Electorally, Berlin’s East-West separation is almost as clear as ever. In the West, leafy outlying suburbs and some wealthier inner neighborhoods voted for the CDU, while citizens in the inner city voted in largest numbers for the SPD and Greens.
In the East, some suburbs also voted CDU—Merkel’s party seems unusual in having appeal across the East-West divide. Beyond that, however, the contrast is stark. By far the largest number of electoral districts voted for Die Linke, a leftist party originating partly from former communists and partly from left-wing defectors from the SPD. Meanwhile, AfD gained a footing out in the eastern suburbs. In keeping with national patterns, this anti-immigration party did better in Berlin districts that have fewer foreign-born citizens.
A few areas buck the trends. Several outlying western districts swung to the AfD, and the Greens did well in some gentrified areas of the inner East, to which large numbers of middle class, often western-born people have moved in recent decades. Overall, however, the differences are often so clear that you can trace the line of the wall by seeing which streets voted for which party.
You can look at the results on an almost street-by-street basis using this map created by newspaper Berliner Zeitung. The graphic below showing results by borough, meanwhile, is considerably less nuanced, but makes the clarity of the divide evident.
Western boroughs have, as a whole, voted for either the CDU (represented by black) or the SPD (represented by red), while in the east they have gone for Die Linke (purple)—which has outperformed AfD when presented in terms of boroughs alone. The one exception is the central borough that voted Green (guess which color?), though on close inspection even this proves to be less exceptional than you might think. This is Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, a borough created from one western and one eastern borough amalgamated into one. The western part of the borough, a place with a strong counter-cultural tradition, voted mainly Green, while the eastern part voted mainly for Die Linke. In other words, the East-West divide here remains essentially the same as elsewhere.
So why the sharp division? Berlin’s political gulfs are merely repetitions of those across Germany as a whole—it’s only the unusual proximity of former eastern and western populations in the city that makes it look so stark.
These divisions reflect how the political marketplace was affected by reunification. When the Christian Democrats entered eastern politics after reunification, they were filling an unrepresented right-wing void in the eastern provinces, where no such grouping had previously been permitted. This is why they succeeded in gaining a strong eastern foothold, albeit one encroached upon by AfD.
On left, it’s another story. The Social Democrats struggled to gain a foothold in the East, where the left-wing side of the political market was more crowded. Former communists regrouped quickly (as the Party of Democratic Socialism) and retained substantial popularity, drawing a partial line under its origins in the German Democratic Republic when it joined up with a left-wing group originally from the SPD to form Die Linke. Their popularity in the East has only been strengthened by the SPDs role as a minor partner in a Merkel-led coalition.
Meanwhile, although the extreme-right AfD has scored some modest successes in the West, it has made galloping gains in the East (mainly beyond Berlin) because it has provided a political outlet for the curdled political frustrations of easterners who feel left behind and seek a cultural enemy—outsiders—on whom to vent their anger.
These continuing social links are arguably as significant in maintaining Berlin’s East-West political divide as any radical difference in ideologies, with political choices partly an expression of tribal identity. You find this kind of voting pattern in many countries, of course, and it isn’t inherently disruptive. Likewise, Germany, and the clutch of AfD-voting districts on Berlin’s eastern fringes, are not alone among European regions in swinging hard to the right. But as AfD finds itself gaining traction among the city’s voters, that long-standing division is congealing into something that, given Germany and Berlin’s history, is very ugly indeed.
It’s too soon to say if this is a harbinger of things to come—even since Sunday’s election, AfD has already been hit by its leader’s snap resignation, suggesting it’s hardly poised for a mainstream role. The result is yet another recent European election leaving people on tenterhooks, wondering what more’s to come.