Table of Contents
2 Advocacy Coalitions, Discursive Networks and Policy Change
3 Advocacy Coalition Framework
4 Research Design
4.1 Discourse Network Analysis
4.2 Data and Data Collection
4.3 Coding and Visualization
6.1 Limitations and future research
This paper examines the political discourse surrounding the "Berliner Mietendeckel". The rent cap, which was supposed to freeze rents in Berlin for five years, was passed by the left-wing Red-Red-Green Senate in January 2020 and overturned by the Federal Constitutional Court just four months after it came into effect. How did the controversial law pass despite opposition from local opposition parties, the real estate and construction industries, and the federal government? And to what extent did the media discourse subsequently condition the final court's decision to return to the previous status quo? I pursue these questions by systematically extracting actors and statements from articles published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and examining networks using the Discourse Network Analyzer program. On the theoretical basis of the Advocacy Coalition Framework, it is found that the pro-law coalition did not have the necessary superiority in the political discourse to be able to maintain a long-term policy change. While the small but effective network of local political supporters was able to push the law through the Senate, the opposition coalition was overall more broadly aligned and internally better connected. It can be argued that increasing nationwide media attention to the Berlin rent cap increasingly shifted discursive relations in favor of the law's opponents, ultimately resulting in a return to the status quo before the law. The finding also underscores the importance of institutional veto players in preventing policy change on social policy issues.
Rent is becoming increasingly expensive: Berlin is one of the ten most expensive cities for tenants in Germany, along with Munich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Hamburg. The nationwide rent regulation ("Mietpreisbremse") in place since 2015 does not seem to be effective in the capital city. After years of discussion about rising rents, Berlin's House of Representatives proposed a nationally unique rent cap in June 2019 to combat the complex problem. The Berlinwide law was adopted six months later with the votes of the red-red-green coalition factions. Goal of the ambitious „ Gesetz zur Neuregelung gesetzlicher Vorschriften zur Mietenbegrenzung“ was to limit the increase in rents. The rent restrictions came into force retroactively. Rent increases implemented after the 18th of June 2019 became invalid and rents were frozen for five years. In addition, certain rent ceilings applied depending on the year of construction and equipment of the apartment. The law also provided for several exceptions in case of hardship. According to the Berlin Senate, three million tenants in the capital benefitted from the law.
Advocates for the rent cap, especially the left-wing senator for Construction, Katrin Lopscher (Die Linke), emphasized the steep increase of rents as the reason for the ambitious regulation. Support came from the governing parties of the federal state of Berlin, SPD and Bündnis 90/die Grünen, as well as tenant associations and civic movements (i.e. the expropriation movement “Deutsche Wohnen enteignen”). Important frames of the pro-law coalition were the hardship of socially deprived in the current housing market, the record profits of housing and construction corporations like Vonovia or Deutsche Wohnen SE, and the clientelism of the center-right opposition. However, as in many socio-political discussions, the process was accompanied by polarization (Garrett & Bankert, 2020). The political opposition and the building and housing industry sharply criticized the rent cap in advance and announced legal action at the German Federal Constitutional Court. According to opponents of the law, the constitutional right to property and the principles of the market economy were violated. The Berlin Christian- Democrats and Liberal party argue that the city should favor building new residential buildings instead of regulating existing housing space. On top of that, critics pointed out possible undesired side effects: Since investors are worried about limited profits and legal uncertainty, the decrease of investments could result in a shortage of housing supply and a lack of environmentally friendly modernization measures.
Four months after the law came into force in November 2020, the rent cap is declared unconstitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court: the reason for this is a legal issue: According to the court, housing is a federal matter and may not be regulated by the states.
Given the polarized discussion, it can be asked how the Berlin Senate was able to pass the controversial law despite opposition from local opposition parties, the real estate and construction industries, the federal government, as well as legal concerns. And to what extent did the public discourse condition the final court's decision to revert the policy change in favor of previous status quo?
To answer these research questions, this paper analyzes the political discourse using an innovative methodology: Discourse Network Analysis (DNA). DNA is a combination of discourse analysis and network analysis (Nagel, 2016), and can be used to visualize political networks. On top of that, the story lines (frames) of either coalition can be examined.
Two time periods are examined: First, I look at the discourse starting with the Senate's presentation of the key points of the bill in June 2019 until the bill's passage in January 2020.
Afterwards, the period from the bill's passage until the Federal Constitutional Court's ruling on the law in March 2021 is examined. The passage of the bill acts as a separator, as it may represent a turning point in the debate: The media attention that the policy subsystem received because of the passing of law could have changed the balance of power. As a basis for data, 101 articles of the Süddeutsche Zeitung are examined: 53 articles in the first period and 48 in the second period.
It can be stated that the discourse in the first period is more polarized than in the second. However, rent cap advocates did not dominate the coverage at any period. The mayor of Berlin, who was acting as a mediator between the left-wing Berlin Senate and the more moderate federal party until the law was passed, was much less present in the second period. Based on theoretical assumptions of the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF), I conclude that the coalition of advocates in the first segment were able to bring about policy change because of their legislative superiority. In media coverage, however, no hegemonic relationship can be observed. The public discourse was not clearly in favor of the rent cap supporters in the second period either, which could have facilitated a return to the previous status quo. On top of that, officials of nationwide parties (also SPD and FDP) and federal institutions, which were mostly critical of the Berlin Senate’s approach, got increasingly involved in the matter. Substantial long-term policy change was therefore not possible due to the lack of discursive hegemony and involvement of federal and institutional veto players.
This finding is relevant to Complex Policy research, as the methodology of discourse network analysis in relation to policy change is still new and has not been sufficiently studied. For example Leifeld (2013) notes that the role of the government (here: the mayor of Berlin) as a "broker" between coalitions needs further analysis. Schmidt and Radaelli (2004) consider the discursive part to often be neglected in the study of policy change. In general, the need for network analysis in combination with ACF is emphasized (Elgin & Weible, 2013).
This paper takes up those aforementioned aspects and analyzes the discourse networks of the controversial Berliner Mietendeckel. It proceeds as follows: In the first part, the state of research is summarized, and the research gap is identified. Second, the theoretical foundation of the ACF is introduced, subsequently applied to the case under study, and hypotheses are derived. The research design is explained in the third section. The fourth part presents the research findings and implications. Finally, the paper describes implications and limitations.
2 Advocacy Coalitions, Discursive Networks and Policy Change
There is a growing body of literature on Network Analysis in combination with the Advocacy Coalition Framework and policy change. Researchers take different approaches: Elgin and Weible (2013) examine Colorado's climate and energy policy via stakeholder analysis. They combine the ACF with Policy Analytical Capacity, so to say the ability of an individual or organization to acquire and use knowledge in the policy process. Their findings emphasize the value of training and experience, and the importance of further network analysis (Elgin & Weible, 2013).
Further literature links the ACF to the Treadmill of Production Theory (Ylä-Anttila et al., 2018). It is argued that corporatism is the reason for poor climate protection because it makes environmental NGOs more moderate and favors economic unions. It is concluded that the influence of ecological coalitions is smaller in fully corporatist countries than in mixed systems like Germany (Ylä-Anttila et al., 2018).
Vesa et al. (2020) further investigate the effect of business lobbyists on climate discourse in a study. They find that business organizations in corporatist systems are influential in the discourse and centrally positioned in the policy network, which can prevent ambitious climate policies (Vesa et al., 2020). This effect can also be observed in this current paper: Real estate corporations like Vonovia, that own a considerable amount of housing space in Berlin, were influential during all stages of the public discourse.
The methodology of discourse network analysis is gaining popularity as it shows how actors influence different policy discourses (Tosun & Schaub, 2017). For example, Leifeld (2013) explores German pension policy using the ACF as a theoretical basis. He identifies differences between depending on the policy subsystem: Thus, in the case of pension policy, there is by default a system with a dominant coalition. However, when polarization occurs in combination with changing coalition memberships, major policy changes can occur (Leifeld, 2013). The conflict over software patents in the EU (Leifeld & Haunss, 2012), the political debate on a sugar tax in England (Buckton et al., 2019), the European discourse on genetically modified organisms (Tosun & Schaub, 2017) or discursive networks in urban construction projects (Nagel, 2016; Nagel & Satoh, 2019) are also studied using discourse network analysis. Buckton et al. (2019) address a relevant concept in their paper: For example, some companies use rhetorical tricks in public discourse to be perceived as a member of the proponent coalition for change, when in fact they prioritize the status quo. This can also be observed during the discussion about rent regulations: Real Estate corporations try to present themselves as guarantees of housing in times of shortages. Also, when the undoing of the law was foreseeable, some companies like Vonovia publicly waive back payments by tenants in order to “increase social acceptance for [their] business model” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 2021).
The political networks around Housing policy and tenancy law have not yet been sufficiently studied scientifically, perhaps because this policy field is traditionally not characterized by politicization. Previous research focusses mainly on the use of language in combination with housing prices (Munro, 2018). Munro (2018) exposes in her critical discourse analysis of newspaper coverage about housing, how industry insiders influence the discourse of the housing market news, and how price rises are framed as both beneficial and the ‘natural order’ in the UK. The aspect of policy change in this subsystem of private and public housing policy in combination with the Discourse Network Analysis has not been highlighted scientifically yet. This paper takes this step and analyses the discursive networks surrounding the Berlin Rent Cap using the Advocacy Coalition Framework.
3 Advocacy Coalition Framework
The theoretical basis of this paper is the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF). The ACF, developed by Sabatier from 1981 and revised since then, is applicable to different substantive issues and geographical areas and can be combined with other process theories (Weible et al., 2009). The aim of the ACF is to understand the main factors of the policy process over a longer period of time (Sabatier, 1998). Central points are the policy subsystem, the emergence of advocacy coalitions based on policy attitudes and policy learning (Jenkins-Smith & Sabatier, 1994; Sabatier, 1998). The policy subsystem is a complex political environment characterised by different power relations (Weible et al., 2009). The ACF assumes a conflict between different ideas and values. State or non-state actors gather in coalitions when they share a set of normative ideas and beliefs. The views are divided into three hierarchical levels: First, deep core beliefs (e.g. politically left or right); second, political beliefs, which represent political opinion about a delimited policy area; and third, secondary aspects, which describe the relative importance of an action to the actor (Jenkins-Smith & Sabatier, 1994; Sabatier, 1998). Sabatier argues that deep core beliefs are resistant to changes in opinion, whereas policy beliefs and secondary aspects can change over time. Coalitions are formed when private or governmental organizations share the same policy preferences (Sabatier, 1998).
This paper forms two hypotheses based on the theory just described as well as Tsebelis’ Veto Player Theory. Veto players are collective or individual actors whose agreement is necessary to change the status quo (Tsebelis, 2002).
First, since the Berlin Senate was able to pass the Mietendeckel in January 2020, it is expected that the coalition of supporters were stronger and better connected than that of opponents of the law in the first time-segment.
H1: The discourse coalition of pro-Mietendeckel organizations is more present in the discourse and more internally connected than the coalition of pro-business critics of the law in the first period.
If the hypothesis is correct, it can be expected that the coalition of legislative supporters has a stronger influence on the outcome, because on the one hand, the dominant coalition, which receives more coverage, can communicate its storylines better (Leifeld & Haunss, 2012). On the other hand, it has more scientific and technical information that leads to political change (Weible et al., 2009).
Hypothesis 2 assumes that the discourse structure will change in the second period. Due to the increased attention for the Berlin rent cap, more actors, including national parties and institutions, are getting involved in the policy subsystem. This increases the amount of potential Veto players.
H2: The balance in public discourse will change in the second period. The network of critics becomes now more dominant than the network of supporters.
As said in the previous paragraph, the dominant coalition can communicate its storylines better than the recessive one. It can be argued that, if H2 is true, the coalition of Mietendeckel opposers will have more influence on the public as well as (veto) institutions.