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From the Field

Resisting the Neoliberal City? The Popular Initiative in Berlin

Western representative democracy is in crisis. In response, direct democracy is emerging as a possible path to regeneration. The experience of “popular initiatives” in Germany illustrates the potential of the institutional innovations that support it, as well as the difficulties inherent in their implementation.

Are the instruments of direct democracy a necessary complement to representative democracy? Is it desirable to challenge the legislative monopoly of elected representatives by offering citizens and civil society procedures to take the initiative themselves? Direct democracy is most often illustrated by the Swiss example of “votations” (Voutat 2005). However, in Switzerland, popular initiative referendums often have conservative objects (Voutat 2002), which is due in particular to the way in which the UDC, an extreme right-wing party, has seized upon them to circumvent the constraints of the consociativist system [1] (Burgos et al. 2009). More generally, direct democracy sometimes seems to favour populist or xenophobic options (see Cossart 2011 regarding the example of Los Angeles), so much so that it fuels the criticisms of its detractors, who are otherwise generally inclined towards an elitist conception of politics. But Switzerland does not have the monopoly on direct democracy. In Germany, direct democratic procedures, including the popular initiative, exist at the national level and in all the Länder. [2] They are used to a greater or lesser degree, depending on their feasibility and the extent to which they are appropriated by citizens, civil society and political parties.

In Berlin, the popular initiative as a democratic instrument was integrated into the new constitution promulgated in 1995 after the fall of the Wall and reunification. But, for the most part, it has only been used in the last decade, with a constitutional reform in 2006. Moreover, it has mainly been invested by a fringe of local progressive social movements, so that it now represents a tool of counter-power to public policies and to the dynamics of neoliberalisation in the German capital (Peck and Tickell 2002; regarding the case of Berlin: Holm 2006; Kemp et al. 2015). How and to what extent does the appropriation of this instrument allow a certain section of civil society to influence the political balance of power? What is the relationship between representative democracy (the institutions of the Land of Berlin, the political parties and local elected officials) and the popular initiative, and what resistance does representative democracy put up against those who make use of this instrument?

A popular initiative that long remained virtual (1991–2006)

Although the popular initiative—that is, the possibility of legislating through a direct democratic procedure, without going through representative institutions—has been available in the West German Länder since 1946, few Länder, in the context of the Cold War, included it in their constitutions or used it until the 1990s. Since reunification in 1991, the direct democracy procedure has become widespread in all German Länder. This was due in part to the lobbying of the association Mehr Demokratie (“More Democracy”), which was formed at the federal level in the late 1980s. Many of the members of this association came from or were close to the so-called “extra-parliamentary opposition” movement of the late 1960s and then the “citizens’ initiative” movement (Bürgerinitiativen), and are sometimes members of or close to Die Grünen (the Greens), which was also formed in this vein in 1980. [3]

In all German Länder, the popular initiative procedure, whereby a proposed law is submitted for signatures and vote by citizens without going through parliamentary channels, is formally standardized and is broken down into three steps, for which the number of signatures to be collected and the thresholds for participation are set in absolute numbers or by a percentage of the Land’s electorate. First, the “request to initiate the procedure” requires the collection of a small number of signatures: most Länder have between 5,000 and 20,000 signatures required. Then the “people’s initiative” (Volksbegehren) as such involves the collection of a significantly larger number of signatures: between 80,000 (3.6% of the electorate) in Schleswig-Holstein and 20% of the electorate in Hesse, or about 870,000 signatures. The time limit for the collection of signatures is also regulated by law: it varies from 14 days in Bavaria to eight months in Saxony. Finally, after these two steps, there is the referendum or “people’s decision” (Volksentscheid), in which the electors vote yes or no to the law proposed by the popular initiative, by a majority of voters (absolute or two-thirds depending on the Länder), but subject in most Länder to a minimum participation threshold or quorum, defined as a percentage of the electorate: between 15% and 33.3% for laws, and between 25% and 50% for constitutional reforms.

Thus, the generalization and standardization of the procedure conceal a great heterogeneity in the conditions of feasibility, and the variations between Länder make visible certain decisive aspects of the procedure, which sometimes prove to be prohibitive: the thresholds and quorums required to complete the procedure, defined locally; the timeframes between the different phases, and in particular the freedom of the executive to set the date of the final ballot or not; the effective implementation or not of legal assistance to initiatives and the reimbursement of campaign costs, are all elements that condition the success of these procedures. Moreover, in some Länder, no popular initiative law has been enacted, or has even been initiated, because of these obstacles. Thus, apart from some national campaigns, [4] the work of Mehr Demokratie, the key promoter of the instrument, is nowadays mainly focused, through its decentralized branches, on the fight to promote initiatives at the level of each Land—by promoting, in particular, the lowering of the thresholds and quorums required at each stage of the procedure. In this sense, the national association publishes an annual report on direct democracy in Germany, and every three years a ranking of the Länder according to their level of direct democracy, assessed in particular according to the use of the initiative procedure and the ease of using it or not.

In Berlin, after the fall of the Wall, it was the combination of pressure from the eastern part of the city-state [5] in favour of direct democracy and a strong reluctance on the part of the political elites, especially in West Berlin, that led to a compromise position: the inclusion of standard instruments in the new constitution of 1995, but the setting of high thresholds and quorums, in particular the “Berlin double threshold,” which strongly circumscribed the possibility of using this procedure. Thus, in the Berlin version of this procedure, until 2006 a law was enacted by a simple majority only if the turnout reached 50% of the electorate or, when the turnout was lower, if the “yes” vote reached 33% of the registered voters (Jung 2012, p. 260).

The reform of 2006: Liberating the popular initiative through parliamentary channels

The constitutional reform of 2006 liberated direct democracy in Berlin, or at least made popular initiative more feasible. Although between 1995 and 2017, 25 popular initiative procedures were attempted at the level of the Land, 19 of these were initiated after the reform, including the five that resulted in the enactment of a law. In Mehr Demokratie’s ranking of the Länder, Berlin has thus moved from last place in 2003 to first place in 2007. [6]

This “top-down” reform of direct democracy came about through a combination of favourable factors. [7] First, following a scandal in the early 2000s in which the majority Christian Democratic Party (CDU) was directly implicated, early elections in 2001 brought about a political shift to the centre-left: the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which had become the majority party, formed a coalition with the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP [8]). The latter, like the Greens (Die Grünen) and the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP), is in favour of improving the conditions for citizen participation, especially direct democracy at all levels of government. On the other hand, the SPD is seeking to increase the powers of the mayor of Berlin, which can only be done through a constitutional reform, which is uncertain since the PDS and Die Grünen parties are opposed to it. The SPD then offered to include provisions to improve the conditions for direct democracy at the level of the Land as a compromise in a package of reforms. This strategy led to an inter-factional agreement and to a unanimous vote on the project (to be submitted to a referendum) minus one vote.

Throughout this process, the association Mehr Demokratie, and in particular Michael Efler, [9] one of its leaders, lobbied the various parliamentary groups and promoted recognition of the need for direct democracy reform. In addition, the association’s publicity and citizen mobilization activities seem to have enabled a relative appropriation “from below” of the issues at stake in the reform for the improvement of direct democracy. For example, it organized a “podium discussion” in which a representative of each of the five party fractions participated. During this public discussion, they were pressured, not least by Efler who also participated, to reveal their party’s position on the issue of developing direct democracy. This would have promoted a repoliticization of the reform issue in the public space (Jung 2012).

Thus, in Berlin, the constitutional reform of direct democracy is mainly of parliamentary origin, although some civil society actors play a central role in the process leading to it (Jung 2012; Solar 2016). The constitutional validation referendum took place at the same time as the parliamentary elections in September 2006. The “yes” vote finally won with 84% of the voters and 58% participation, i.e. by 45.5% of the Berlin electorate. With this reform, the thresholds and quorums were lowered to achievable levels.

Citizens’ appropriation of the popular initiative and the construction of a counter-power

Despite the Mehr Demokratie campaign, it is not an exaggeration to say that the 2006 reform was not the result of citizen mobilization. The popular initiative system became less virtual from 2006 onwards as a result of a reform “from above,” which did not augur well for its appropriation by civil society. However, popular initiatives quickly multiplied. Most of these initiatives were aimed at countering the neo-liberal urban policies of the dominant SPD. Thus, three procedures were launched to reverse the privatization of water in 2007, public transport in 2011 and energy in 2012. In 2013, the “100% Tempelhofer Feld” initiative vetoed the Berlin Senate’s plan to build housing on the former Tempelhof airport field (see Inset 1). In 2015, the Mietenvolksentscheid (“People’s Decision on Rents”) takes on housing policy. Since the end of the 1990s, rents in Berlin have risen to such a level that a growing number of low-income residents are threatened with being forced out of the city center by the massive influx of wealthier households attracted by the urban quality of life in the metropolis. The popular initiative launched in early 2015 to counteract these logics seeks to promote a social housing policy. By mobilizing a large number of citizens, it pushed the SPD to introduce certain legislative measures aimed at regulating the housing market, and made housing a decisive issue in the 2016 legislative elections in Berlin (Chevallier 2016).

Inset 1. Tempelhof, symbol of the confrontation between representative and direct democracy in Berlin

Since 2006, the mobilizations around the conversion of the historic Tempelhof airport have made it a symbol of the citizens’ appropriation of the popular initiative mechanism to counter the Berlin government’s policy. Just after the 2006 reform, a popular initiative tried to prevent the government’s planned closure (Sintomer 2008): the initiative did not reach the necessary quorum of participants and in 2010 the take-off and landing field became a “de facto park” that was much appreciated by neighbors, Berliners and tourists. In 2012, the Berlin Senate announced a plan to build 4,700 housing units, mostly for home ownership, and infrastructures on one third of the field. A popular initiative was then launched to oppose this project. Its organizers denounced what they considered a false good answer to the housing crisis in Berlin: according to them, the housing problem in Berlin is not just a lack of housing, but a lack of affordable housing for the most modest categories.

The battle raged in the media, and elected officials seemed relatively unanimous in denouncing this popular initiative, led by Klaus Wowereit, the mayor at the time, who spoke of “popular stupidity” and “selfishness.” In the referendum, the popular initiative won, the Senate’s plan was stopped, and the enacted law prohibited all construction on the entire former airport site (Chevallier 2016). In 2015, this law enacted by popular decision was amended by the Berlin Chamber of Deputies to allow accommodation in the former airport halls of refugees who arrived in Berlin in large numbers. The still existing 100% Tempelhofer Feld initiative denounces this political move and launches in 2016, together with other actors who have already invested the instrument, the popular initiative “Save the popular decision!”

Popular initiatives continue to exist even after the procedure has been completed: at least they remain lively and visible organizations in the public arena. In terms of form and purpose, they follow the tradition of the German “citizens’ initiatives” (Bürgerinitiativen), a form of thematic organization which developed from the 1970s onwards and which still represents one of the most politicized fringes of civil society organizations in Germany. The popular initiatives create alliances between various and heterogeneous actors, such as—to name only the most active—Mehr Demokratie, Attac Berlin, the “Berlin Tables,” tenants’ federations and other organizations.

These include—to name the most active—Mehr Demokratie, Attac Berlin, the “Berlin Tables,” [10] renters’ federations and consumers’ associations, and thematic or neighborhood initiatives (Weixner 2006). In addition, people (often from the educated and politicized middle classes) also get involved in the popular initiative campaigns individually: for them, it is an opportunity for a strong yet limited commitment. Overall, popular initiatives do not escape the phenomenon of “social selectivity” that can be observed in all forms of political participation: the most disadvantaged classes are underrepresented (Simonson and Vogel 2017).

The campaigns borrow from the classic repertoires of actions of social movements and citizen initiatives: communication work with the press, via social media, posters, distribution of flyers, collection of signatures and information through stands and in public spaces. All this requires important organizational and financial resources, which implies the collection of private donations, public subsidies being forbidden.

The popular initiatives thus actualize an older activist culture of “extra-parliamentary opposition,” which, through different “styles”—different ways of putting the same values into practice (Eliasoph and Lichterman 2010)—values an intermediate form of activism, between conflictual and conventional participation. Indeed, Berlin’s popular initiatives combine confrontational stances and proposals towards government policy with more institutionalized and conventional participation practices (voting, collecting signatures, demonstrations, organizing public meetings), which makes them capable of building relatively large citizen coalitions compared to other social movements.

When representative democracy is an obstacle to direct democracy

The citizen investment in this form of institutional participation is not, however, without clashes with representative power. In addition to the regulatory framework that constrains it and limits its scope, elected officials use strategies to dismantle the mobilizations that surround popular initiatives, if not to obstruct or derail the procedures launched. The Mietenvolksentscheid, briefly mentioned above, provides a good example of this tangle of regulatory and political obstacles. While the first step (application to start the procedure) was largely successful, with more than 40,000 signatures, the SPD quickly made contact with the “trusted persons” [11] of the initiative during the summer. At the end of the summer, the latter then came out of the negotiations and announced that it would be better to abandon the popular initiative procedure and accept a compromise bill from the SPD. The reason given was that the law proposed by the initiative, by requiring the transformation of real estate companies into public institutions, would run counter to European Union law and property rights, and would risk being overturned by the constitutional court of the Land. Since the law prohibits any “substantial” changes to the text proposed by the popular initiative once the procedure has begun, this threat amounts to a condemnation of the text, even if it is approved by referendum.

The Mietenvolksentscheid was thus abandoned. Many active campaigners who were enthusiastic about the initiative are still bitter about this episode, especially since the compromise law passed by the deputies falls short of the original ambition and the individuals who negotiated it, the so-called “trusted persons,” were never mandated by the campaigners to do so. An article from the “interventionist left,” [12] which took part in the popular initiative, sums up this feeling: “If the contradiction (between obtaining concrete advances in the legal field and the long-term constitution of a counter-power of social transformation) had not been unilaterally decided, we would be today, in spite of the legal threat (of non-admissibility of the law), first and foremost celebrating.” [13]

Another limitation is apparent when the law on Tempelhof, enacted in 2013 by popular decision, is amended in 2015 by the Berlin Chamber of Deputies: laws resulting from popular initiatives are not protected from further amendments by parliamentary means.

A final limitation refers to the control of temporality. The 2012 popular initiative on energy, for example, failed because the participation rate in the final referendum did not reach the required minimum threshold. While the referendum could have been held at the same time as the European elections (in order to benefit from the turnout of the elective ballot, which would have satisfied the quorum), the Berlin Senate decided to set the date a few weeks after the elections. The collective supporting the popular initiative denounces a form of repression of direct democracy by the representative power.

In response to what is seen by the popular initiative’s supporters as attacks on direct democracy, [14] a number of former popular initiative organizations and other actors—led by 100% Tempelhofer Feld and Mehr Demokratie—have joined forces to launch the popular initiative “Save the People’s Decision!” (“Volksentscheid retten!”). This is the first attempt at constitutional reform through direct democracy in Berlin. Among other things, it would be possible for citizens, in the case of a parliamentary amendment to a law enacted by popular decision, to collect signatures in order to force the amendment to be validated by a referendum; the thresholds and quorums would be lowered again, particularly for amending the constitution; the Senate would be forced to set the date of popular initiative referendums at the same time as elections. But the Senate has been dragging its feet on this popular initiative, so the planned goal of scheduling the referendum to coincide with federal elections—and thus ensure sufficient participation in the popular initiative—is now in jeopardy. Given the level of quorum required to amend the constitution (50% of the electorate), this coincidence of electoral times represents the best chance of success for the initiative.

In Berlin, direct democratic arrangements thus constitute a real counter-power to the politics of representatives, which helps to structure certain controversies between a part of civil society and elected officials. Since its liberation after 2006, the instrument of the popular initiative has been widely used by civil society, social movements and progressive citizens to oppose the neo-liberal options favoured by the parties, first and foremost the SPD, which has governed the city since the early 2000s. However, this success itself is not without risk, as K., an activist in various neighbourhood initiatives and a Berlin Renters’ Federation, warns: “We have to be careful with the popular initiative referendum: now, other actors such as business lobbies are beginning to seize it, to learn how to use it.” [15] Indeed, it is not insignificant that parties such as the liberal FDP or even the extreme right-wing AfD support the development of direct democracy. The reason for this is its malleability: as in Switzerland, [16] it cannot be ruled out that it will one day serve liberal, conservative or xenophobic political options in Berlin. But the ability of Berlin’s progressive nebula, which has appropriated the popular initiative for the past decade, to mobilize it for social justice objectives now seems to be one of the best safeguards against these possible pitfalls.


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Thomas Chevallier, “Resisting the Neoliberal City? The Popular Initiative in Berlin”, Metropolitics, 17 February 2023. URL :

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