Klaus Wowereit, handily re-elected mayor, rapidly reassessing his potential
“Will Wowi become the first gay chancellor?” was the headline of Germany’s largest circulating newspaper, Bild, following the re-election victory of Berlin’s openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit. The mayor, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Germany’s leading left-of-center party, is universally known as Wowi in this capital city of 3.4 million. His stunning victory on September 17 has catapulted him onto the national political stage in Europe’s largest nation; with a population of 82 million, Germany tops Britain, France, and Italy each by more than 20 million people.
“In the beginning I underestimated my power as a symbol,” Wowereit said in August as he headed into the final stretch of his municipal re-election bid. “I have received so many letters, for instance, from the provinces, which showed me how much hope has become attached to me.”
Perhaps that explains Wowereit’s decision on election night to appear on stage with his partner, Jörn Kubicki, a neurologist, at his victory party. The Bild newspaper, a sort of Deutschland New York Post, played up its photo of Kubicki and Wowi embracing each other before television cameras.
Yet even as it scandal-sheeted the hug, the Bild found itself caught up in Wowereit’s staying power. Franz Josef Wagner, a conservative Bild columnist, wrote, “Our mayor kisses his friend, the Berliners vote him again as their mayor. The capital city of love is Berlin.”
Wowereit has governed Berlin for five years, having outed himself prior to his first mayoral win in 2001 with his famous declaration: “I am gay and that’s okay.” Wowi’s willingness to open up his life to voters, however, has delineated some of the limits of acceptance for out gay life even after two electoral successes—yes, that’s right, limits, despite the fact that Berlin is known for its massive “love parade” every summer. In a September 19 feature “What Is Good About Being Gay?” in the Berliner Zeitung, a leading liberal daily with a strong East Berlin readership, staff journalist Birgit Walter charged that Wowereit’s outing formulation was “idiotic” and “racist.”
“Wowereit maintains that it is okay to be gay,” Walter wrote. “And what is then bad? Is it bad to be a heterosexual?” She added, “Klaus Wowereit and his friend are gay: that is not good or bad; not correct or false; that is simply so.”
The sting of Walter’s attack is deeply felt by gay Germans. Elmar Kraushaar, a leading gay journalist and author, a few days later labeled Walter an “enemy of homosexuality” in his regular “Gay Man” column in the newspaper Taz.
The major media internationally are suddenly consumed with the novel concept that a gay man could succeed the current right-of-center Christian Democratic Union (CDU) chancellor, Angela Merkel, in 2009. The New York Times and The Economist magazine are now paying close attention, both billing Wowereit as the rising star of German politics. Yet, when Gay City News sat down with the mayor for an exclusive pre-election interview five weeks before the September election, the possibility of a Chancellor Wowereit was already in the air. (See http://gaycitynews.com/gcn_535/nottoberepressed.html)
Wowereit defeated the CDU candidate, Friedrich Pflüger, who resorted to playing the gay card during the last phase of the campaign.
“Actually, Berlin has earned once again a first lady,” Pflüger proclaimed.
Now, the CDU loser’s marital instability is plastered on the cover of tabloid pages across Germany. Entangled in bitter and explosive post-divorce wrangling with his first wife, Pflüger likely rues his mention of a first lady. Presumably Pflüger was thinking of his second wife when he spoke of his first lady.
Popular acceptance of a gay mayor—and of course a first man, namely Kubicki—in Berlin is, by historical reckoning, a remarkable development. The city was home, for 12 years beginning in 1933, to a regime that ruthlessly destroyed the vibrant homosexual life that grew up in the post-World War I Weimar Republic. The government that followed in the wake of the Allied victory worked tirelessly to restore democracy, yet continued the Nazi policy toward gay men, classifying those liberated from concentration camps as sodomite criminals rather than victims.
“For homosexuals, the Third Reich is still not over,” the German-Jewish theologian Hans Joachim Schoeps said in 1963.
Wowereit is acutely aware that his role as a leading politician is viewed through the prism of gay identity.
“I am still examined by many people differently than a heterosexual politician,” he said. “When I am with my life partner with the federal president, then there are people for whom that does not go well. That can be sensed sometimes. And journalists still always question me whether you make as a homosexual a different type of politics.”
In fact, Wowereit has created expectations among gays he is not always able to meet. The notion that he would forge a politics of gayness was precisely what Berlin’s leading queer magazine, Siegessäule, envisioned. Holger Wicht, the magazine’s chief editor, criticized Wowereit for failing to improve political asylum rights for homosexual immigrants living in Berlin. Wicht led a successful campaign to prevent the deportation of a 16-year-old gay student back to his homeland in the West African nation of Cameroon where homosexuality remains a crime that often leads to imprisonment. Wowereit refused to intervene with the city’s interior commissioner, Ehrhart Körting, who is responsible for asylum cases in Berlin. The German judicial system has not yet recognized sexual orientation persecution as grounds for seeking asylum or preventing deportation. In Wichter’s view, regarding the politics of immigration, Wowi is “an entirely normal SPD politician.”
Wowereit insists that he represents all Berliners, just as Christine C. Quinn, New York’s out lesbian City Council speaker from Chelsea, now strives to embody the aspirations of all five boroughs. Wowereit’s SPD scored a dramatic victory in Berlin where, as in much of Europe, elections are contested among a wide range of viable political parties. In 2001, 29.9 percent of Berliners voted SPD and in 2006 the margin grew to 30.9 percent. Following five years of painful municipal budget cuts in a city with a 60 billion-Euro debt and one of the highest joblessness rates in Germany, a gay mayor, who describes Berlin as “poor but sexy,” was able to increase the SPD’s share of the vote.
Given its multi-party electoral system, Berlin is governed by a coalition, and the results this year gave Wowereit latitude in selecting majority partners. He opted to continue with the red-red coalition between the SPD and the Left Party-PDS, the successor to the defunct German Democratic Republic’s Socialist Unity Party, essentially the ruling Soviet/communist vehicle. Significantly, Wowi chose his fellow reds over the Green Party.
The Greens scored a spectacular victory this year. In 2001, only 9.1 percent voted for the ecological party. In September, that figure rose to 13.2 percent. The Left Party-PDS meanwhile suffered a humiliating defeat, watching its margin sink from 22.6 percent in 2001 to 13.24 percent, a loss of 180,000 votes. In the eastern districts of Berlin, the traditional Left Party-PDS stronghold, the socialists suffered a 20 percent decline in its tallies.
Why would Wowi select a battered leftist party riddled with internal divisions, when the Greens seemed to be on the move?
The Greens, post-election, immediately signaled an aggressive posture, insisting, prior to any negotiations with the mayor, on a set number of city commissioners in the government. B.Z, a Berlin tabloid almost unimaginably a full notch below the level of Rupert Murdoch’s press properties, had some fun with the possibility of that coalition. “Macho Red & Mommy Green: Will she become his master?” read the B.Z headline, throwing some red meat to reactionary Berliners all too ready to see their butch mayor as the masochist slave to Eichstädt-Bohling, the chairwoman of the Berlin Greens.
“We will measure it by with whom we can get as much social democracy through as possible,” Wowereit explained in justifying his choice of a governing partner. Stability and reliability were key factors in the SPD decision. The Berlin press, even those with more rectitude than B.Z., speculated that Wowi and the SPD viewed the Greens as too demanding.
The mayor also conjured up the image of the Berlin Wall, which divided his city for 28 years. “Through the participation of the PDS will the unity of the city be brought forward,” he said.
But not all of his SPD colleagues were comfortable with Wowi’s coalition choice. Wolfgang Thierse, the SPD vice president of the federal Bundestag, commented, “When Wowereit wants to become the chancellor candidate, he should have opted for red-green.” Former West Germans tend to view the PDS as the continuation of East German-style communism and many have a political allergy to the thought of voting for them. Wowereit’s ties to a party still widely perceived as Stalinist could lead to a West German backlash should he move onto the national stage.
It is not just the press and political colleagues (perhaps rivals) who are pumping up speculation about Wowereit’s national ambitions. The mayor is clearly flirting with the idea of the chancellorship and, although he stresses that his chief priority is running Germany’s largest city, he has started to position himself as a national SPD figure.
In what is the first of his major forays into federal politics, Wowereit voiced his support for a ban on the National Democratic Party (NPD), a neo-Nazi party that recently won enough votes to enter the state Parliament in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a former East German jurisdiction. The NPD, an incorrigibly reactionary party that is anti-immigrant, anti-gay, racist, and anti-Semitic, also secured the necessary percentage of votes to enter four local district parliaments in Berlin. That outcome is roughly the equivalent of voters in the Throgs Neck section in the Bronx sending a Ku Klux Klan representative to serve in the New York City Council.
“We would admittedly not remove extreme right thought with a prohibition,” Wowereit declared. “But it is intolerable that the neo-Nazis, thanks to the privileges of all parties, appear with a brazenness not to be undone. They collect public monies from election campaign cost refunds which are used for offices and infrastructure.” Indeed, the NPD in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is due 2.5 million Euros from public funds that it can apply to further its cause.
Wowereit’s stand on the NPD is in contrast to that of Chancellor Merkel, who rejects the new attempt to legally bar the party.
“We must encourage the people so that they will not be taken in by simple and populist slogans,” the Christian Democratic chancellor has said.
But on the ground in Berlin, it is not simply a battle for the education of voters. This September’s mayoral campaign was the most violent in Berlin since 1933. The NPD frequently attacked SPD-sponsored events and Wowereit required additional security because of the menacing presence of neo-Nazis. Ten thousand gay men were carted off in cattle wagons to concentration camps in the wake of Germany’s 1933 vote and several hundred thousand more were otherwise persecuted. Wowi’s support for outlawing a party that represents the zenith of intolerance is probably best understood in the context of that past. Wowereit has a different political antenna than most German politicians. The mayor of Berlin, though to some critics not sufficiently hewing to the queer party line, nonetheless knows his gay history.