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Germansplaining: How the capital fails German democracy

Our columnist looks at “only in Berlin” syndrome and at how the country’s capital fails its democracy.

Guards stand at the Brandenburg Gate, as the Berlin Wall goes up behind them, in August 1961. Photo: ullstein bild via Getty Images.

If you ever went to West Berlin, you may remember the viewing platform that allowed visitors to look at the Brandenburg Gate, across the wall. I climbed the steps as a kid. There was a big sign next to the platform: ACHTUNG Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin.

Back then, you were warned to leave. Today, let me warn you upon arrival. Anyone wanting to move here, better brace themselves for a failed state.

Some claim that Berlin-bashing has become boring, mainstream. That it’s only petty provincial people who cannot grasp the laissez-faire genius of the city. I disagree.

Most Berliners don’t expect genius. All we need is competency. But in today’s Berlin that’s scarcer than food was during the Luftbrücke (the 1948-49 airlift).

Berlin’s administration loves rules and regulations as does everyone in this country. But only in Berlin will you find that the ones making the rules can’t make them work. No wonder local civil servants call in sick, on average, 40 days per year.

You all know the never-ending-airport-saga. It took ages to build the thing, now it takes ages to make it function. Sweden’s former prime minister Carl Bildt recently tweeted exasperatedly about airport security. What could make a one-time peace broker in the former Yugoslavia so desperate? Only Berlin.

Locals can go on for ever about the blunders: only in Berlin did the senate sell 65,000 flats 15 years ago for 1.9billion euros only to buy back 14,750 (in need of modernisation) this year for 2.5billion euros. Only in Berlin will you have to wait months for birth or death certificates.

But two months ago, the organised carelessness rose to a whole new level, on super election day. Berliners voted on federal, state and local council levels. As a treat, there was also a non-binding referendum on large housing companies (“to be compensated only significantly below market price”). Five ballot papers, lots to read.

Film footage showed voters standing in lines reaching around building blocks, waiting for hours. Some went home to fetch chairs. Others went home for good. Some were even sent home, when voting stations closed early.

There was a shortage of voting booths and ballot papers, and some districts’ ballot papers were delivered to the wrong voting stations (making votes invalid).

There are heartbreaking stories of 90 year olds attempting to vote, several times that day, but eventually giving up exhausted.

A friend’s daughter volunteered as a voting clerk. She is 18, a first-time voter. The voting station she volunteered at wasn’t the one she was allowed to vote in. So she cycled there during her lunch break and waited. For more than half an hour. No one allowed her to jump the queue. Her break came to an end, she cycled back. A first-time non-voter.

Others had more luck. In some districts 16 and 17 year olds were handed not just the local ballot papers they were supposed to get, but federal and national ones as well. The teens took part in elections they were legally not allowed to. Their own mistake, said a district mayor later (because it’s never the authorities’ fault, ever, in Berlin).

Voting had to end at 6pm sharp. In 2,194 of 2,245 Berlin voting stations it didn’t – they closed after exit polls had been published, possibly influencing voters’ decisions. The last one shut its doors at 8.56pm.

Experts say most of the problems weren’t relevant to the result. Which is interesting as no one can tell how many people didn’t actually get to vote because of the chaos (or did and shouldn’t have). When I stood in line at midday for about 40 minutes, I watched people enter the building and exit immediately after seeing the queue. Did they return later? Who knows. The one thing I know: the German capital failed Germany’s democracy.

Last week,the federal returning officer filed an objection, contesting the validity of the election, to the 20th German Bundestag. The validity of the Berlin state election had already been contested.

Much as I hope there will be an electoral encore, at least in Berlin, I don’t believe it will happen. The damage is done either way.

There may be a solution though: bring back Allied Command for the Berlin Sector. British, French and American, minus Russia – you’ll manage. And even if you don’t, it can’t get any worse.

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