Berlin reflects the shifting mood

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Leaving a polling station near central Berlin on Sunday, Jana James expressed decidedly mixed feelings about the German election.

The public health worker cast her vote for the Green party but said chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government had also served her young family well over the past four years.

“Things are good for us at the moment,” she said, referring to the government’s decision to grant new parental leave benefits, adding: “The grand coalition has got to grips with the financial crisis – it hasn’t affected us.”

Mrs James’s stance is indicative of the shifting attitudes that have emerged during the German election campaign and have complicated party efforts to target voters.

The constituency of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, where Mrs James lives, is among the most vibrant, yet poorest, districts in the German capital.

It straddles the old east-west divide and is among Berlin’s most radical, eco-friendly and racially-mixed communities.

Here, residents have little time for staid candidates or the established parties, reflecting a broader trend towards a more fragmented, left-leaning national political landscape.

In 2005, 43 per cent cast their vote for the Greens, 21 per cent for the Social Democrats and 18 per cent for the radical Left party; the conservative Christian Democrats scored 11 per cent, while the pro-business FDP managed only 3 per cent.

Voting near Karl-Marx Allee – the grand socialist boulevard formerly known as Stalinallee – Gunther Garsky, a retired teacher, says he chose to back the Left party.

Having fought and been captured by the British in north Africa during World War II, Mr Garsky, who walks with the aid of crutches, backs the Left’s call to bring the troops home from Afghanistan.

“I regret that Germany is involved in foreign conflicts again,” he says, wearily

Mr Garsky has lived in the area since before the fall of the Berlin Wall and insists that strong social policies remain very important to him.

“I’m not against [German] reunification but I am opposed to its mistakes – people should be paid the same money if they do the same amount of work.”

There is little tolerance of conspicuous wealth in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and a sometimes palpable hostility towards those deemed responsible for the financial crisis.

Scores of luxury cars parked on local streets have been torched in recent months, in what police fear may be politically-motivated attacks.

But not everyone is angry or radicalised. Carl Tillessen, a young, immaculately dressed fashion industry worker, says he voted for the liberal, tax-cutting FDP.

“Guido Westerwelle [the leader of the FDP] talks to people like mature adults rather than little children,” he explains, adding that he also favours the party’s economic policies. “But perhaps I don’t have so many friends here [in Friedrichshain].”

Mr Tillessen could be referring to people like Britta Oartel, 70 who voted for the SPD. “We are from the working class,” she says. “The FDP are only for the rich”.

At national level the general election campaign has at times seemed dour and uninspiring, but politicians in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg have kept residents well-entertained.

Vera Lengsfeld, the 57-year old CDU candidate, shot to fame in August when placards showing her ample cleavage offset against an image of chancellor Angela Merkel’s bust, upset traditionalists in her party. The double-entendre caption - “We have more to offer” – made headlines around the world.

The incumbent Hans-Christian Ströbele, 70, is also no shrinking violet. In 2002 the veteran pacifist and leftwing politician became the first Green candidate to win a parliamentary constituency (as opposed to election from a party list) and is widely expected to repeat the feat on Sunday.

Colourful cartoon campaign posters depict the white-haired Mr Ströbele sporting a red Che Guevara scarf and a rainbow flag with the slogan “Disarm the financial markets!”

His support is particularly strong in the leafy, educated and middle class district of western Kreuzberg - part of the former west Berlin – whose tree-lined, sun-drenched streets feel a world away from the oppressive, communist architecture of Friedrichshain.

As locals and their young children pull up to the polling station on their bicycles, Daniel Bruehl, one of Germany’s best-known actors, ambles by. He remains unmolested.

Christopher Heitzeberg, a local resident, say he backed Mr Stroebele because of his environmental credentials.

“What the other parties say nowadays about ecological policies all stems from the Greens.”

But Ulrich Weisse, a surgeon, took a more nuanced approach. Although he usually votes for the Greens, he marked his polling card for the SPD this time because he was alarmed by their slump in the polls.

“I think a lot of people will do the same,” he explains. “It’s about making sure that a [centre-right] coalition does not get a majority.”

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