Berlin Water: Successful Referendum

An astonishing event happend yesterday in Berlin, Germany. There was a referendum on contract transparency of water privatization in Berlin, which has been won (details see below). The referendum demanded all contracts to be openly published, and if not, to be declared invalid. In order to understand the real meaning of this referendum, one has to know a bit of the background.

In 1999 the Berlin government privatized the Berlin Water on basis of a PPP (private public partnership). The corporations RWE and Veolia got a garantueed rate of return on the expense of all households, which have to pay for much higher bills. But the contracts of the privatization were secret. A movement on reclaiming the water in citizens hands (»Berlin Water Table«) demanded all contracts to be published. They successfully run a petition (the first step on the way to a referendum). Then a »leak« of most secret contracts happend (in a newspaper and on the internet). All previous assumptions (guarantees for the corporations, higher costs for the people) have been confirmed. However, the movement assumed, that not all contracts and agreements have been published. The government of Berlin said, that with the leak there is no longer any necessity for the referendum, but the movement insisted.

And so the referendum took place. There are two requirements for a referendum to be sucessful: First, a majority of the voters have to vote YES, second, 25% of eligible voters (=616571 persons in total) have to vote YES (quorum). The results have been: First, the majority was reached, 98.2% vote YES, second, the quorum was reached, 665713 persons vote YES (=27.0%). It was the first referendum in Berlin which succeeded.

Some further background. In Berlin there is a socialdemocrat-leftparty city government. One should assume, that such a government, or at least their left members, are on the movements side. But this was not the case. The socialdem-left government did not conclude the contracts, but kept all agreements secret. On every step the movement for reclaiming the water took the government put obstacles in their way. They act as defenders of neoliberalism (although using a different tongue).

The referenduum, although only 2% above the quorum, got more votes than both parties had together during the last elections. Many people which stayed at home did not believe in the success of the referenduum, because the public mobilization and discussion was quite low. The main local public TV station did not include debates on the water issue in their program — in contrast to two former votings (on a city airport and religion in schools). Therefore, the success can not be estimated too high.

Carl Waßmuth, speaker of »Gemeingut in BürgerInnenhand« (»common good in the citizens hands«) said:

The overwhelming result is a slap in the face of privatization politics, and also of the desultory re-communalizationalists. The sellout in the secret chamber has ended. At the same time this is a central precondition for an affordable repatriation of Berlin Water under democratic control. In Germany there are about 200 Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) privatizations like with the Berlin Water. All of these PPP contracts are secret. Beginning with the Berlin Referendum all communes are encouraged to break up the secret contracts on privatization of general interests.

The referendum is only the first step on the way of reclaiming the water as a commons. Now, all contracts and side agreements have to be published. We will be aware of new surprises. Within the water movement the meaning of commons is slowly growing. They are not simply demanding to put the water back into the hands of the state, but find new communal ways to provide good quality water (and the Berlin water is really good!) for all citizens.

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