Bundestag election: The jitters over Berlin: How bitter will the catch-up election on Sunday be for the traffic lights?

Anyone who decides to live in Berlin has to give up a lot.

Bundestag election: The jitters over Berlin: How bitter will the catch-up election on Sunday be for the traffic lights?

Anyone who decides to live in Berlin has to give up a lot. For example, cheap rents, safe cycle paths and sunshine in winter. Anyone who decides to live in Berlin will be offered things that are rare in the rest of the republic. With a bit of luck, for example, you can vote more often than anywhere else.

It was just a year ago, at the beginning of 2023, when there was a House of Representatives election in Berlin. And now, at the beginning of 2024, there will be another federal election in the capital. Yes, you read that right. Next Sunday, February 11th, around 550,000 Berliners will be called upon to cast their two votes for the Bundestag.

No, this is not a test run so that the administration doesn't get out of practice. This is the real deal, a real choice. And it will have consequences for the Chancellor and his traffic light coalition.

The Berlin repetition is the start of a year full of important elections, Europe in June and the East in autumn. It is the first test of sentiment for the federal government after three months of budget chaos. And it could be the start of a series of defeats for the SPD, Greens and FDP. The jitters are correspondingly big.

Wait a minute, attentive readers may interject, federal election? The electoral period doesn’t end until fall 2025. That’s correct. In Berlin, however, the 2021 election will have to be partially repeated. At that time, federal, House of Representatives and district elections took place on the same day as the marathon. In many polling stations there were not enough ballot papers. Supplies did not get through the closed city in time, and in some places voting continued until well after 6 p.m.

In places where the chaos was particularly great, the election will now be repeated. This is what the Federal Constitutional Court decided. Every fifth eligible voter can go to the polls again. Calculated across Germany, that means: not even one in a hundred. The countable effects are correspondingly small. Not much will change in the composition of the Bundestag. The AfD will not become much stronger overnight. The majority are certain of the traffic lights. Nevertheless, Olaf Scholz, Robert Habeck and Christian Lindner cannot look forward to a quiet Sunday. Many in the coalition fear that this will be unpleasant. Even a small catastrophe shapes the mood, directs the debate, and causes new arguments. The circumstances of the election can be so strange. And they really are.

Access to all STERN PLUS content and articles from the print magazine


Already registered?

Ottilie Klein, 39, suggested a café not far from the Brandenburg Gate as a meeting point. Her office is right next door; Since 2021 she has been sitting in the Bundestag for the CDU. Klein coughs in greeting. Too much campaigning in the cold, she apologizes. She is one of the MPs who could lose their mandate in the repeat election. But Klein would rather not talk about that. She is confident. “I sense a great willingness to choose on the street and at the front doors.”

Klein's good mood is easily explained by the fact that she has been general secretary of the Berlin CDU for almost six months. In this role, little better could have happened to her than the next election campaign. After all, the traffic light poll numbers are consistently bad to very bad. The CDU, on the other hand, has struggled nationwide under Friedrich Merz. In Berlin, she rules so quietly with the SPD that it took a young love between the governing mayor and his education senator to make the headlines again.

The situation for the Berlin CDU could hardly be more excellent. The demands are correspondingly high. “We want this election to be the beginning of the end of the traffic light,” says Klein. Many Berliners would now have the unexpected chance to evaluate the federal government in the middle of the election period. "You can give the traffic light an interim certificate."

The Union was well prepared. The Christian Democrats definitely don't want to waste such an opportunity. On the Tuesday before Christmas, just a few hours after the court announced the repeat election, Klein stood next to CDU General Secretary Carsten Linnemann in the Konrad Adenauer House and presented the campaign:

Berlin, no one is more in demand than you.

Show the stop sign to the traffic lights!

Give the traffic lights a lesson.

Simple messages, consistent first names – can the bourgeois camp be mobilized in this way? That's exactly what Klein and her CDU have to succeed if they want to win the traffic light: motivate as many people as possible to vote in an election that they have only just found out about.

It is not necessarily the CDU strongholds in which the election will now be repeated. If you add up all the affected voting districts, the Union got 13.7 percent there in 2021. Given the good surveys, that should be easy to top. However, more percentages in this election do not equal more seats. Every vote counts – literally.

Around 58,000 people voted for the CDU in the chaos electoral districts. The absolute number is important in this case. Because the Bundestag is larger than the regular 598 seats, the repeat second votes now only decide on the distribution of compensatory mandates. And because the results are certain in all other countries, it is possible to say exactly how many votes each party needs to keep – or lose – a seat. If too few people vote in Berlin, other regional associations benefit.

What this means in concrete terms can be easily calculated using the example of Ottilie Klein, who was elected via the Berlin state list. If the CDU loses a little more than 11,000 votes compared to 2021, it is out. If the CDU loses between 3,700 and 11,000 votes, Klein stays in, but her parliamentary group colleague Jürgen Hardt from North Rhine-Westphalia is out. If the CDU doesn't lose or win too much, both will stay in. However, if the CDU wins between 50,477 and 54,195 votes, another candidate from the Berlin state list will move up. And Hardt would be out again.

Confused? The peculiarities of repeat voting are like the rules of cricket: just when you think you understand the moves, you realize that you haven't even considered half of all the eventualities.

The curiosities are told more quickly: In fifth place on the AfD's state list, there is a woman on the ballot paper who is now in custody on suspicion of terrorism. In Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, an SPD man who was responsible for the election mess in 2021 as governing mayor has to fight for his direct mandate: Michael Müller. Only his secure place on the list prevents late justice.

While in some places only individual polling stations are affected, in Pankow 86 percent of those eligible to vote are allowed to vote again. There, in the north of Berlin, almost every second SPD or Green voted in 2021. Both traffic light parties need every vote so that Berlin seats are not lost to other state associations – or lost entirely. But with so much traffic light frustration among the population, there is a danger: if you mobilize too much, you will also mobilize the wrong people. The higher the voter turnout, the safer your seats. The higher the voter turnout, the more likely the clap.

Nina Stahr, 41, Green Party, like Klein, has been sitting in the Bundestag since 2021. And she too could lose her mandate again. To prevent that from happening, she travels a lot now. Information stands, events, door-to-door election campaigns. Some people have already asked, says Stahr, why there will be another election now. "But people definitely know whether they can vote or not." She has to explain why it is important to vote. The election campaign is not as polarized as the previous one, says Stahr. "People are friendlier, even when they tell us that the Greens are not their party. They then say: I'm not voting for you, but it's still good that you exist."

This is not good news for the traffic lights. More so for democracy. It is also the first election after the demonstrations against right-wing extremism. In this respect, too, a mood test: Does the force of the street transfer to the voting booth?

The election in the Celle district in Lower Saxony is being followed particularly closely. There is Angela Hohmann, 60, parliamentary group leader of the SPD in the district council. Hohmann almost came to the Bundestag in 2021. Depending on the outcome in Berlin, it could be that time after all, not exactly to the joy of those affected.

“I actually don’t want to be in the Bundestag,” says Hohmann. Of course she hopes for another mandate for Lower Saxony, but she is conflicted and is keeping her fingers crossed for her Berlin comrade. If Hohmann were to get involved, a bad-tempered faction would be waiting for them in Berlin. If Lower Saxony were to get one more seat, the SPD would probably not have even gotten half as many votes as in 2021.

Then the slap would be perfect.