Europe

Berlin party over for Mayor Klaus Wowereit

Klaus Wowereit at international tourism fair in 2006 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Klaus Wowereit was seen in Berlin as a much-needed breath of fresh air

He was looking forward to being bored, Klaus Wowereit said as he prepared to leave Berlin City Hall for the last time.

Wowi, as he was widely known, earned a reputation as a hard-working, hard-partying mayor.

Midway through his 13 years in office, he was one of Germany's most popular politicians, the unofficial crown prince of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and a potential contender for chancellor.

Now, at the end of his tenure, Berliners are left scratching their heads wondering what exactly his legacy is. And the 61-year-old's ambitions for the future are unclear.

But it all started with a bang.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A farewell reception was held for Wowi as he prepared to leave office

Just before Klaus Wowereit became mayor in 2001, he coined one of his best-known catchphrases. "I am gay and that's just fine" (German: Ich bin schwul, und das ist gut so), he told the party conference that nominated him for the capital city's top job.

The fact that in 2014 such a coming-out would seem fairly unremarkable in German society must be one of his main achievements.

His easy-going openness on the subject helped create a tolerant atmosphere in the German mainstream, and when Guido Westerwelle became the country's first openly gay member of government as foreign minister in 2009, his sexual orientation barely made headlines.

'Poor, but sexy'

During his first years in office, the mayor and the city he governed seemed to be in tune with each other.

Post-reunification Berlin had seen a dramatic economic downturn.

East Berlin's inefficient industry - a heritage of communist times - had crumbled and West Berlin had experienced an exodus of companies that no longer enjoyed tax breaks granted while the Wall had isolated the city.

Unemployment soared to about 20%, and Berlin had to reinvent itself as, in Klaus Wowereit's words, "poor but sexy" (German: arm, aber sexy).

That second, famous catchphrase was the self-portrait of a city that saw itself as young, vibrant, creative, open and slightly anarchic. Different, at least, from saturated, and rather boring, communities like Munich or Hamburg.

And it suited the mayor's flamboyant nature, his penchant for rubbing shoulders with artists and celebrities.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mayor Wowereit (seen here during the World Cup in 2006) saw partying and networking as part of his job

"After years of mismanagement, Wowereit was a much-needed breath of fresh air," says Artur Fischer, CEO of the Berlin Stock Exchange. "You can argue whether he was just riding the wave of excitement or whether he created it. Either way, he understood what the city needed."

Never one to miss a party, Klaus Wowereit brushed off criticism of his style by arguing that on his nights out he was networking, negotiating, learning - in fact, working.

And while Berlin today is still relatively poor and dependent on subsidies from richer states in Germany's south, the city is much better off, attracting not only tourists from all over the world, but entrepreneurs from the digital and media industry, too.

The mayor's popularity among Berliners was strong enough to overcome lingering Cold War divisions, according to Peter Matuschek of polling institute Forsa.

"Whereas the conservative CDU [Christian Democrats] still have their support base in West Berlin and the post-communist Linke in the East, Wowereit managed to make the Social Democrats an all-Berlin party," Mr Mattuschek says.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Berlin's new airport was due to open two years ago but there is still no firm date

Airport scandal

But it was not to last. Klaus Wowereit seemed to lose his touch.

His decline dates back to 2010, when, after a long series of breakdowns in public transport, he chose to tell Berliners not to complain instead of addressing the problem.

He was surprised when a referendum on opening up public parkland for development did not bring the expected result, and commentators took it as a vote against him.

But what really cost him political credibility was his refusal to take responsibility for the monumental public relations disaster of Berlin's new airport, known as BER.

The opening in 2012 was called off with just days to go, due to missing safety features, and even now no-one can say with any certainty when the airport will finally start operating. Probably not before 2017, and maybe even later.

Klaus Wowereit was chair of the airport's supervisory board but rather than stepping down when the extent of the scandal became apparent, he put all the blame on the technical staff.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption One of the mayor's final major events was last month, marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall

"This has damaged the brand 'Made in Germany' immensely," says the head of the Berlin Stock Exchange.

"I regret to say this, but 10 years from now this is what the world will remember him for: the airport that didn't open."

Forsa pollster Matuschek is more forgiving. "He may have neglected the burdensome parts of his job but Wowereit will be remembered as the man who opened reunified Berlin to the world."

Berliners seem to agree. Having sunk in the opinion polls to become the city's most unpopular politician earlier this year, Klaus Wowereit saw himself reconciled with many after deciding to step down.

Most now believe they will remember him for the good he has done for the city of his birth.

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