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Many Berliners say repeat elections are a sign of the city's deeper dysfunction


So there's a cultural stereotype that implies Germans are organized and efficient. Local elections in Berlin are proving that is not necessarily true. In 2021, Berlin's state and municipal election was so chaotic, the results were annulled. Voters went to the polls again yesterday for a redo. Many Berliners see the debacle as a sign of deeper problems with how the city is run. Esme Nicholson reports.


ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: It's morning rush hour and Andreas Schmidt is late for work because of delays on the subway.

ANDREAS SCHMIDT: (Through interpreter) Nothing in this city works anymore. It's not just the subway system. Dealing with authorities and getting paperwork done is agony.

NICHOLSON: Schmidt has just moved house and is required to register his new address with the city authorities in person within two weeks. But he can't get an appointment. Above ground, Deniz Atas is waiting for a bus and has time to share her latest administrative nightmare.

DENIZ ATAS: (Through interpreter) I became a German citizen years ago, but the authorities recently asked to see my certificate of naturalization, which I've lost. I can't get a replacement copy, and they won't accept my German passport, even though it was issued by the very same office.

NICHOLSON: Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel runs a column that scrutinizes this kind of Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Laurenz Maroldt is the newspaper's editor-in-chief and has reported on the capital since reunification.

LAURENZ MAROLDT: (Through interpreter) City officials have perfected a kind of well-ordered, systematic incompetence. When there's a problem, it lands on somebody else's desk. And when there's money to dish out, everybody is suddenly involved. Either way, nothing gets done.

NICHOLSON: Maroldt says this coordinated gridlock is a liability.

MAROLDT: (Through interpreter) A school has to jump through up to 14 administrative hoops to get the city to paint the zebra crossing outside the entrance, meaning it can take years.

NICHOLSON: The structure of Berlin's government has something to do with all this. Berlin has a senate which functions as both city hall and state government, but its authority is challenged by no fewer than 12 district councils.

MAROLDT: (Through interpreter) Quite often Berlin's state government ends up dealing with the smallest problems, while the district administrations discuss world peace.

NICHOLSON: Berlin's bureaucratic morass counters the city's more auspicious international image. Its rich history, its art scene and nightlife have long been a draw to outsiders. More recently, the city has attracted tech entrepreneurs. Christian Miele is a venture capital investor and chairs the board of the German Startup Association.

CHRISTIAN MIELE: Berlin became an international startup hub not because of Berlin, but despite Berlin.

NICHOLSON: He says the city authorities have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to meeting business needs.

MIELE: It's getting foreign talent into the city, like getting visas. It's dealing with the financial authorities - obviously, they're slow. This is not how you should work with a startup founder who's expected to be, like, really, really fast.

NICHOLSON: After riots on New Year's Eve led to attacks on firefighters and ambulance crews, the conservative CDU party called Berlin a failed city-state. It and conservative press blamed it on, quote, "people with a migration background," a euphemism in Germany for anyone who's not white.


NICHOLSON: Back at the bus stop, Atas is still waiting. With Turkish parents, Atas is also considered a person with a migration background, even though she was born in Germany.

ATAS: (Through interpreter) The fact the city won't accept my German passport is not only absurd, it makes me question whether I'm really German in their eyes.

NICHOLSON: She says this kind of structural racism is the other systemic problem Berlin's new city government must address.

For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.