Three veteran Social Democrat (SPD) candidates have entered the race to replace Wowereit – Berlin SPD party chief Jan Stöß, the party’s leader in the Berlin Parliament, Raed Saleh, and the Berlin senator for urban development and environment Michael Müller.
Around 17,000 SPD members will vote for the next mayor in a mail ballot this week with votes being counted on October 18th.
Analysts have their money on either Müller or Stöß, with Saleh being labelled the underdog advantage.
Still, as the race heats up, many say it is difficult to calculate which way SPD members – those who will decide on the next Berlin mayor – will vote. Around 85 percent of the 17,000 voters are not active in party politics and it is thus hard to say which way their vote will go.
Should none of the candidates get 50 percent of the vote, a run-off between the two candidates with the most votes will take place, with the final counting completed on November 6th.
Jan Stöß is most famous for having toppled Michael Müller – another of the mayoral favourites – as party leader in Berlin in 2012. Stoß is running on the ticket of change, as opposed to a simple continuation of Wowereit’s mayoralty, which he says is what Berliners will get if Müller – notoriously close to the incumbent – wins.
“We have to invest in our infrastructure more, and ensure more social equality in the city (whose parts) are drifting away from each other;” he told the Tageszeitung.
Stöß is basing his candidacy on reducing inequality in a city with growing socioeconomic imbalance, and a better-functioning bureaucracy.
His positions thus far in the SPD – party member since 1990, leader in the district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg in 2008 and Berlin party chairman in 2012 – have afforded him neither experience in governance and parliamentary affairs, nor proximity to voters. His low public profile may also hurt his chances.
However, having been Berlin's SPD chairman, and coming from the more left-wing base of the party, may mean he is more likely to better represent the party’s line.
His distance to the governing leadership, which eventually grew deeply unpopular over the failure to open Berlin Brandenburg Airport, may help him.
The 41-year-old also has backbone. The trained judge, standing nearly two metres tall, is not afraid to make powerful enemies.
He placed himself squarely on Wowereit’s bad side as he called on his party to withdraw support from Berlin's senator for culture – and Wowereit ally – André Schmitz, who was discovered to have hidden €425,000 in a Swiss bank account.
While gay, glamorous Wowereit embodied the city’s creative, free-for-all vibe, the capital’s rising rents and falling investment – and the hulking mess of the new airport – might mean the administrative judge, who did his dissertation on large-scale city infrastructure, may be exactly the method needed for Berlin’s madness.
Müller is the only candidate born and raised in Berlin – a possible advantage in the eyes of the notoriously tribalistic native Berliners. He also has a leg up on the other two in terms of name recognition and parliamentary experience.
Like his father before him, the trained printer was active in the SPD from a young age. In the party since 1981, he was the head of the SPD in the Berlin parliament from 2001 to 2011.
Between 2004 and 2012, he was head of the SPD in Berlin. He also heads up the Berlin senate’s biggest portfolio – urban development and environment.
But the 49-year-old's closeness to Wowereit casts a shadow on his candidacy. In 2012, he lost his seat as SPD chairman in Berlin to Stöß. A further setback came as Berliners voted overwhelmingly against his pet project with Wowereit – a large-scale property development on the former Tempelhof airport.
However, he has been known to simply continue on after setbacks.
In contrast to the colourful outgoing mayor, Germany’s newspapers describe a pragmatic, dependable man with little charisma. Welt newspaper calls Müller “friendly, effective, but a little pale in public”.
But the Tagesspiegel – despite also saying Müller was “objective to the point of boredom” – says Müller’s lack of vanity and desire for the spotlight should be counted as a strength.
In an interview with broadcaster RBB, he said: “Despite all the positive changes in the city, I see what still has to be done, especially on social issues: end unemployment, establish affordable housing, investing in schools and kitas.”
However – a little ironically, given the Tempelhofer Feld project – he said he supports the maintenance of free spaces, which “among other things, distinguishes Berlin.”
The head of the SPD in the Berlin Parliament, Saleh was born in Sebastia, near Nablus in the West Bank, and is often held up as a successful example of integration – not an insignificant topic for a city where one in four people have a migration background.
Born to poor immigrant parents, he moved with his family to Spandau as a young child in a working class borough in north-eastern Berlin.
His career since then has been characterized by rapid rises. From flipping burgers at a Burger King outlet, he eventually went on to become director of the holding company owning the franchise.
The 37-year-old's political career has been similar – it took him eight years to rise from a member of parliament to becoming his party’s floor leader in the Berlin Parliament.
Running as “a Berlin mayor for everyone”, his work has concentrated on integration issues, especially those involving Turkish and Arab immigrants. The Times of Israel reports Saleh has often led trips to Auschwitz for young German Muslims.
At a time of rising anti-Semitism, Berlin could profit from someone who understands integration issues and religious tensions on a personal level.
But the Tagesspiegel observed that Saleh often seems ill at ease in public, where he often reads from prepared notes, and tends towards “exaggerated detractions” of political opponents.
The paper also highlighted his “mechanical repetitions” of particular sound bites, with the “Berlin mayor for everyone” line just being one and others including “we need a forward-thinking integration policy” and “I know this city, and not only from conference rooms.”
While the German press had made much out of Saleh’s “grammatical errors” – unfairly, says the taz, in the end, it is likely Saleh’s short run with the party – relative to the other two candidates – which will hamper his plans to govern Berlin.