It was billed as Berlin’s most eco-friendly public toilet, but for many the three-door wood-panelled hut is now the latest symbol of the German capital’s dysfunction.
The toilet – including a pissoir and a “missoir” for women – cost €56,000 and was unveiled in December by Kreuzberg district mayor Cara Herrmann: “Bam! Here it is, after only five years of planning.”
Set in the middle of a busy roundabout in a muddy piece of grass – with a step ensuring it is not accessible – the toilet became a joke on social media – and with locals like Gerhard Wolf at the fruit and vegetable stand opposite.
“I knew we couldn’t build airports in Berlin,” he says drily, referring to Berlin-Brandenburg International’s notorious nine-year, multibillion delay. Nodding to the massive campaign posters near the lonely toilet hut, he adds: “And then there’s the elections.”
On Sunday, the city-state of Berlin will make history as the first of Germany’s 16 federal states ordered to rerun an election after the September 2021 poll descended into chaos. Shortages of ballot papers forced some polling stations to close while too few voting cabins saw massive queues formed at many polling stations; many Berliners voted long after first results were known.
Last November, Berlin’s highest court ordered a complete rerun, leaving politicians and voters shuddering at the prospect of a winter campaign and another election.
That in turn has amplified frustration among many Berliners at the state of their city, which some link to decades of SPD rule in city hall.
Rivals hope Berliners will punish the SPD and vote for change, such as a new coalition headed by the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). It is polling at 26 per cent, a comfortable six points ahead of the SPD.
“This is a decision between more of the same and a real fresh start for a badly-governed city,” said Kai Wegner, CDU lead candidate in Berlin.
With fewer political allies and options, though, his CDU may finish first on Sunday but watch the SPD-Green-Left alliance return, headed once more by governing mayor Franziska Giffey.
Just more than a year in office, the soft-spoken 44-year-old is pinning her hopes on her personal popularity and the fact that she wasn’t in power for the 2021 election disaster. Giffey hopes voters will recognise her government’s leftist reforms on housing and childcare – and a rapid post-pandemic rebound in Berlin’s economy.
“We had above-average growth in 2022, the city is booming since Covid, we have full hotels and restaurants,” she said. “We are almost back to the pre-pandemic levels, but the CDU doesn’t like to talk about that.”
A centrist politician with a leftist party, tight competition from the Greens could see her SPD return to power – but as junior partner under the ecological party.
The campaign has been dominated by issues common to other big European cities, from spiralling housing costs to public safety concerns.
But political veterans suggest last November’s court reasoning for Sunday’s election rerun of the September 2021 poll – citing “serious systemic failings” – could also apply to Berlin in general.
Today’s capital was created in 1920 when independent outer-lying towns were forced into a union called “greater Berlin” but, in a hard-won compromise, allowed retain with considerable autonomy. A century on, all sides admit that Berlin is now an unmanageable mess of overlapping responsibilities – less one city of 12 districts than 12-in-one.
Reform of this dysfunctional system is not on Sunday’s ballot paper, meaning little let-up is likely from the planning chaos that leads to failed elections, dilapidated schools, creaking public services – or five years for a public toilet in the centre of a roundabout.
When 2.4 million Berliners are called to vote on Sunday, international election observers will be on hand to watch events closely. Aware of the attention, Berlin political veterans admit that, at this stage, not even the €5 billion Berlin gets in annual transfers from wealthier federal states can paper over the widening cracks.
“Things are so ramshackle here because of the 1920 compromise of central administration and 12 municipalities with divided and shared competences,” said Walter Momper, former Berlin SPD government mayor. “Once this city was a beacon of freedom, now it has become a national laughing stock.”