Berlin - 2021 could be the year that we neutralise the coronavirus. Let's hope so. But the months to come remain riddled with uncertainty. Nonetheless, Berlin and Germany have a big year ahead of them, especially in politics. Here's what's in store:
The CDU picks a new leader. Whoever the Christian Democrats select as their party chair at the party conference on 16 January will probably end up being Germany's next chancellor, if current polls are to believed. It's still quite unclear who that will be. As the Financial Times puts it: "The most popular candidate will not be on the ballot." They're talking about our health minister Jens Spahn, who's been in the spotlight all year thanks to corona. The ones actually on the ballot for the CDU's top spot are former Blackrock exec, pro-business conservative Friedrich Merz, Armin Laschet, a cuddly Merkelista moderate (and head of the country's most-populous state) and Norbert Röttgen, a level-headed foreign policy expert. Merz leads in the polls, but I wouldn't put it past CDU members to go for a safer choice in the last minute.
The actual elections are scheduled for 26 September. With the CDU polling at 35-37 per cent, it would take a miracle to prevent them from scoring the chancellor's post once more. The Greens are hovering at 18 per cent, the SPD at 15. It's widely believed among pundits that the election of Merz as party leader, which would make him the candidate for chancellor, could trigger a defection of moderate voters to the Greens or the SPD. At least we'd have a half-way interesting election. While Merz is no "German Donald Trump", as Politico click-baitingly declared in November, he's a disruptor known for the occasional unhinged tweet or, for example, casually linking homosexuality to pedophilia, as he did in an interview in September. If one of the other candidates pulls through, Germany's first CDU-Green coalition (on the national level, at least) is the most likely outcome of the 2021 elections. But if Merz gets it, the odds of a leftwing Green-SPD-Linke coalition running the country are slightly higher.
Berliners will also choose a new local parliament on 26 September - and hence a new "governing mayor", the official term for the leader of the city-state. Polls suggest some voters are snubbing the current "red-red-green" coalition headed by Michael Müller (SPD). For the first time in aeons, the CDU (22 per cent) are slightly ahead of the SPD (18) and Greens (18) in the city. Müller's government is perceived to be ineffective on a number of fronts, from the sluggish pace of the Green transport revolution (i.e. more bike lanes) to the poor handling of police issues, like when far-right corona sceptics managed to storm the steps of the Reichstag in August.
And then there's the Mietendeckel or rent cap. Thousands of Berliners have benefited from lower rents thanks to the groundbreaking legislation (read our explainer here). But the CDU and FDP are fighting it with everything they've got. Germany's highest court says it will rule on whether the law violates constitutional property rights sometime in the first half of 2021. If the rent cap is shot down, tenants are in for a nasty surprise, and will have to make back payments of all the money they've saved since November. People with new "shadow rent" contracts would then have to pay the higher amount stipulated in their contract - as if the Mietendeckel had never existed.
Something else we await with anticipation are the findings of a study commissioned by German interior minister Horst Seehofer on racism in the police. Following the resurgence of Black Lives Matter last spring and revelations about numerous racist WhatsApp groups among officers, Seehofer finally bowed to pressure and commissioned the investigation - but only on the condition that it also looked into the violence and problems faced by police officers themselves. Cringeworthy, you might say - but at least Horst "there-is-no-systemic-racism-in-the-police" Seehofer has finally budged a little. Wir sind gespannt.
Locally, we're keeping an eye on the ambitious Berlin aufofrei (car-free Berlin) referendum campaign, which aims to make the inner city - meaning within the S-Bahn ring- largely free of private automobile traffic. In early 2021, campaigners will focus on collecting the 20,000 signatures required to make it to the next step in the official referendum process.
A few weeks ago, that €600m behemouth in Mitte, the Stadtschloß aka the Humboldt Forum, "opened" online because of corona, naturally. Makes you wonder whether we could have spared ourselves the boxy palace altogether. Both the building and the institution inhabiting it continue to come under fire for their approach to Prussian history and the German colonial legacy. Basically, the entire project is problematic, critics say, not least because the planned exhibitions still contain artworks taken in "a colonial context". To the organisers' credit, the digital opening has included many "critical perspectives" (such as writer Priya Basil's excellent English-language film essay "Locked In and Out"). So, as the place will probably physically open in 2021, expect plenty more debate in Berlin on the presentation of looted art in the space as well as the greater question of "decolonialisation". The exhibition Berlin Global slated to open some time in 2021 should address some of these themes. Check out a slightly embarrassing virtual tour in English here.
What else to expect? Virtually all of the big annual events that fall between now and summer are going digital. The Berlinale has been moved from February to March when it will present films online only. What's the point of the film festival without the thrill of waiting at the red carpet in a snowstorm for a glimpse of Keira Knightley or the communal experience of watching some new cinema from a far-flung part of the world, with a chance to chat with the director afterwards? A mini-Berlinale in actual theatres has been planned for June - assuming the vaccines have sufficiently done their job by then.
Hopefully by summer, things will be safe enough to at least indulge in the pleasure of "public viewing". As you'll recall, the EURO 2020 football tournament was moved to June and July 2021, thanks to corona. Compared to what's going on now, standing around a big screen TV outside a Späti with a bottle of Augustiner sounds like a riot.
Much of the coming year remains shrouded in a fog of uncertainty and the timeline of when we can resume normal life is incredibly hazy. Quite a few writers are predicting another Roaring Twenties after the pandemic. Following more than a year of death and boredom, we should see an explosion of culture, nightlife and all-round hedonism. If that's the case, what better place to be than Berlin?