Berlin elections threaten to deliver fresh blow to Merkel’s ailing party

When Berlin’s Christian Democratic Union conceived of the poster campaign for Sunday’s state elections in the German capital, coming up with a core message must have felt like a no-brainer.

After last November’s terrorist atrocity in Paris, New Year’s Eve’s sexual assaults in Cologne and a string of gun, bomb, axe and machete attacks in Bavaria in July, Germany’s conservative party could fall back on its roots and promise to assuage people’s fears with a law-and-order agenda.

For six weeks, posters with the slogan “Strong Berlin” have lined the streets, promising more police and more video technology. In his campaign ad, the CDU candidate and current deputy mayor Frank Henkel promises to boost the police force by 750 officers and spend an additional ¢2m (£1.7m) on new equipment, in particular “high-resolution CCTV cameras at all underground and overground train stations”.

In a city with historic sensitivities around surveillance, Henkel’s team hopes fears of terrorism and a high-profile criminal case have changed attitudes. Last year, Berlin police managed to arrest the murderer of two children only after he had been caught on a shopkeeper’s CCTV camera.

Berlin elections threaten to deliver fresh blow to Merkel's ailing party
Berlin elections threaten to deliver fresh blow to Merkel’s ailing party

Yet with two days to go until Berliners cast their votes, polls indicate that on issues around privacy and data protection, the German capital will preserve its unique status.

Latest surveys have the Christian Democrats on a mere 18% of the vote, well behind mayor Michael Müller’s Social Democrats. Some polls even put the CDU into third place, behind the Green party.

After five years of a “grand coalition” between the centre left and centre right, Berlin looks likely to be governed in the future by an alliance between the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left party.

After a string of defeats at state elections in Baden–Württemberg, Rhineland-Westphalia and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern this year, a further embarrassment for Angela Merkel’s party in her own backyard is likely to increase pressure on the chancellor over her management of the fallout from the refugee crisis.

The Die Zeit weekly newspaper reports that party rebels have given Merkel a deadline: if she does not to perform a public U-turn by Tuesday, some MPs will rise up in open rebellion.

The anti-immigration party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is expected to gain a double-digit share of the vote in the capital for the first time – a result Müller warned would be seen around the world as a sign of the return of the rightwing and the Nazis in Germany.l

Though the refugee crisis continues to dominate the news agenda at national level, it has played only a minor role in the campaigns for the state election. The latest polls have the AfD as the fifth strongest party in the state parliament, behind four others with a broadly pro-refugee stance – a reminder, perhaps, that fears of rising rents still register higher than fears of terrorism in Berlin.

On closer inspection, the Christian Democrats’ crisis in the city looks like a reflection of the party’s struggles nationally rather than the failure to engage with attitudes on interior security at a local level.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall authorities in the German capital have had to work with tighter restrictions on state surveillance than have affected other big cities internationally. While almost 15,000 CCTV cameras are installed at rail stations and on public transport, data privacy regulations stop the police from installing, in public spaces, cameras that transmit images in real time.

The city’s police union argues that such restrictions put its officers at a disadvantage compared with those in regions such as Bavaria, where they can set up mobile CCTV units. “At the moment, we are short of qualified staff and state-of-the-art kit, which means we are always one step behind the criminals”, said Bodo Pfalzgraf, the union chief.

In June, Henkel, then still the Berlin senate’s interior minister, had tried to change local law to allow CCTV surveillance of crime hotspots such as Alexanderplatz and Kottbusser Tor in Kreuzberg. But the proposal failed partly because of a last-minute intervention by the Pirate party, which entered the state parliament in 2011 on a data protection agenda.

The defeat left Henkel’s conservatives with an issue to campaign on, but little evidence that they were up to the task of changing Berlin’s cultural consensus around surveillance when they were in power.

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