Klaus Wowereit, former Mayor of Berlin

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Wowereit: Berlin’s charming
and very determined mayor

18 September 2006: Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit is Germany’s best-known city leader and, after the departure of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in late 2005, has become one of the country’s leading Social Democrat politicians. Before the 2001 mayoral elections he told the people of Berlin that he was gay. The phrase he used “ich bin schwul und das ist auch gut so – I am gay and that’s not a bad thing” has since been adopted by many prominent people, who declared their homosexuality.

Update December 2014: Michael Müller sworn in as Berlin's new Mayor.
Update September 2011: Klaus Wowereit was re-elected for a third term as Mayor of Berlin.

In an interview in 2004, Klaus Wowereit told City Mayors that he could not think of a better job than being mayor of Germany’s capital city. “Berlin is a young, lively, high-energy metropolis bursting with urban vitality, drawing to it young and creative people from all over the world,” he said and then quoted a young fashion designer “Berlin gives wings to the imagination.”

Klaus Wowereit was born in 1953 in Berlin, the youngest of four children. He grew up without a father and although the family was of modest means, his mother encouraged him to go to grammar school and later university. He has always maintained that the policies of the late Willy Brandt, Berlin Mayor and West Germany’s first Social Democrat Chancellor, which gave children from a poor background the opportunity to gain higher education, allowed him to study law.

Wowereit joined the Social Democrats (SPD) while at university and described Willy Brandt as his political idol. “The way he, first as the foreign minister and then chancellor, pressed ahead with policies of détente and Ostpolitik fascinated me and directed me towards politics.”

In 1984, Wowereit started his political career by becoming councillor in Tempelhof, one of West Berlin’s then 20 boroughs. (Today, following reforms in 2001, the city has 12 boroughs) As a borough councillor, he focused on education and culture and also gained thorough knowledge of Berlin’s political scene. After 11 years in Tempelhof, Klaus Wowereit ran for a seat in the Berlin House of Representatives (Abgeordnetenhaus). After his first four years in the House he was elected chairman of the SPD parliamentary group in December 1999. At the time his party was the junior partner in a grand coalition with the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). The coalition fell apart in 2001 after the CDU became involved in a financial scandal. Following the collapse of the CDU/SPD government, the Social Democrats and the Green Party formed a minority administration with Klaus Wowereit as mayor.

In elections, held in October 2001, the SPD became the largest party in the Berlin parliament, with almost 30 per cent of the vote. The CDU came second with some 24 per cent, closely followed by the PDS (East Germany’s former communist party) on 23 per cent. After initial coalition talks between the SPD, the Green Party and the Free Democrats failed, the Social Democrats and the PDS agreed to form a government with Wowereit as leader.

During his first term in office (2001 to 2006), Klaus Wowereit has won praise for keeping public services such as museums open and promoting culture, helping to draw more visitors to the German capital than any European city with the exception of Paris and London. His political opponents, however, say the mayor has done little to revive the economy of Berlin, which has the highest unemployment rate of any western European capital. According to Berlin’s chamber of commerce, the city has lost some 100,000 manufacturing jobs since re-unification in 1990.

Contrary to the image of an easy-going party lover painted by Klaus Wowereit’s political opponents, the mayor has often shown ruthlessness. Shortly after taking office, Wowereit forced public sector unions to accept drastic pay cuts among city employees to reduce Berlin’s budget deficit. He also did not hesitate to cut spending on schools and kindergartens to reign in city spending.

Klaus Wowereit has remained highly popular throughout his first term in office (2001 to 2006), with approval ratings generally above 60 per cent. In elections held on 17 September 2006, the Mayor’s SDP remained Berlin’s largest party, winning almost 31 per cent of the vote. Despite losses, the conservative CDU again forms the second-strongest group in the Berlin parliament. The results for the main parties were: SPD 30.8% (+1.1%), CDU 21.3% (-2.5%), PDS 13.4% (-9.2%), Green Party 13.1% (+4.0%), Free Democrats 7.6% (-2.3%).

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