After 13 years in office 'the Wowi factor' can't save gay mayor

Berlin's flamboyant leader stands down, having become the fall guy for stalled new airport

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Klaus Wowereit could hardly be described as modest.

As Berlin’s 61-year-old flamboyant and openly gay “party” mayor stepped down after a record 13 years in office, the German capital suddenly assumed a strange, almost North Korean air, yesterday.

All over the city the smiling face of its retiring political leader with the decidedly canine nickname of “Wowi”, beamed down from electronic advertisement hoardings. Alongside was the word  “Danke” (Thanks) picked out in red to denote his Social Democrat convictions.

“I am looking forward to being bored,” Mr Wowereit nonchalantly declared in one of his last interviews as mayor.  He was trying to avoid the fact that he was resigning under a cloud which was almost certainly set to oust him from power in Berlin’s 2016 city elections anyway.

As Berlin Mayor, Klaus Wowereit became irrevocably tarred by the public relations disaster of his pet project:  the city’s planned new “Willy Brandt” international airport, named after one of his more famous Social Democrat predecessors.

Scheduled to open in 2012, the airport is still plagued by frequently ludicrous technical failures and has become the laughing stock of the nation. There is still no opening date and costs are increasing. Mr Wowereit’s dogged refusal to take responsibility for the mess finally ruined his political prospects. He decided to get out while the going was good.

Yet the start of his term was more auspicious. Berlin may enjoy a reputation as having been one of the world’s leading gay capitals since the 1920s, but back in 2001 when Mr Wowereit was elected, homosexuality was not often openly admitted to in politics. Klaus Wowereit  changed all that.

Shortly before he took office he announced: “I am gay and that is just fine.” He had no qualms about appearing in public with his partner Jörn Kubicki. The taboo-breaking gesture attracted widespread media attention  which Wowi, as he soon became known, latched on to.

Wowi knew how to exploit the media for his and Berlin’s own ends. He coined the  description “poor but sexy” for the city,  flew to New York with his partner to go clubbing, and soon won a reputation as Berlin’s openly gay “party” mayor. The label helped Berlin more than expected.

Wowi comes from an unassuming middle-class family and grew up in the former West Berlin suburb of Lichtenrade. He worked his way steadily to the top of the Berlin Wall-bound city’s Social Democratic Party, which he had joined as a youth.

But under his tenure, “Cool Berlin” has found a place on the map. With a new-found reputation as a clubbing all-night, hip and experimental capital, the city now vies with London and Paris as one of Europe’s most sought after destinations.

Berlin even markets itself with the slogan “the place to be”.  It is also host to a booming artistic and internet company start-up scene.

Berlin tourism has increased by a staggering 275 per cent since the fall of  its infamous Wall 25 years ago. Wowi, was in charge for almost half of  those years. Among foreign visitors to the city, British tourists top the bill.

At 1.18 million, they made up the largest number of  non-German visitors last year – an increase of 18 per cent over 2012. Some British Berlin  visitors don’t even bother renting a hotel room – they fly in, party all night and fly back the next day

His admirers describe Mr Wowereit flatteringly as the mayor who “opened reunified Berlin to the world.” Politically he also helped his Social Democratic party to overcome the post-war political divisions of East and West Berlin and become an all-city party.

Yet his critics are unforgiving. They point to the fact that 25 years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall the city is still relies largely on transfer payments from richer German states to survive. Under Mr Wowereit, Berlin’s debts have increased from €40bn to €60bn. Every fifth inhabitant lives on social security and 54.3 per cent of homes are single-person households. Big business is still almost an alien concept in Berlin despite its status as Germany’s political capital.

It was hoped that Berlin’s Willy Brandt airport, on the south-eastern fringe of the city, would act as a stepping stone and help to attract big business. But  its opening was cancelled only days before the first planes were due to land. It emerged that the planned fire protection system was inadequate.

Since then, the airport’s problems have mushroomed. Its embarrassed technicians were forced to admit last year that they didn’t know how to turn off the thousands of lights which blaze throughout the deserted airport buildings and on its runways at night.

Wowi was head of the airport supervisory board. Yet, instead of stepping down when the scale of the scandal became clear, he simply blamed the technicians. Earlier this year, opinion polls rated him the city’s most unpopular politician.

“You can fall into a hole,” he admitted in an interview last week. “ But then you have to work your way out of it.”

In Wowi’s case, the way out was resignation.

The new mayor of Berlin, Michael Mueller, a centre-left Social Democrat, was elected yesterday. The 50-year-old Mr Mueller was previously Berlin’s development and environment minister. He has a down-to-earth image, pledging “solid government” and an emphasis on affordable housing.