Mayor of 'poor but sexy' Berlin to step down

Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit addresses a news conference in Berlin August 26, 2014.

BERLIN - Berlin's embattled mayor Klaus Wowereit, who famously dubbed his city "poor but sexy" and presided over its rise as an arts and party capital, will step down in December, sources said Tuesday.

Wowereit, who has led Berlin since 2001, had once been seen as a potential Social Democratic challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel. But his star rapidly tarnished in recent years due to a fiasco surrounding a planned international airport.

Berlin government sources told AFP that Wowereit, 60, would make the announcement later Tuesday that he would likely leave office on December 11.

It was not immediately clear who would replace him, or whether his decision would prompt new elections, which are scheduled in late 2016.

The airport on the German capital's southeastern outskirts was to open in June 2012 but it has been marred by repeated delays and massive cost overruns and a new opening date has still not been named.

Wowereit is head of the supervisory board of the airport, whose management has faced allegations of corruption and incompetence.

One of Germany's first prominent politicians to come out of the closet, the ever-quotable Wowereit told party colleagues before his election as mayor in June 2001: "I'm gay, and that's just fine," coining a new catch phase.

Christian Lindner, head of the opposition Free Democrats, tweeted Tuesday: "Wowereit is stepping down, and that's just fine. The mayor's leaving but the chaos and debt remain." Wowereit, who grew up in a leafy western district of the city cleaved by the Berlin Wall, long appeared to embody the spirit of his all-night party metropolis. He danced the night away at galas and benefits and once posed for a photo appearing to drink Champagne from the high-heeled red pump of a cabaret star.

Wowereit later denied there was any bubbly in the shoe.

He pronounced his heavily-indebted hometown, which was still grappling with the corrosive legacy of its Cold War division, "poor but sexy".

In recent years, the Berlin economy has begun to recover with some 150,000 jobs created since 2005.

But the city's famously affordable rents, particularly in the historic city centre, have risen apace, exacerbating tensions between young and old, rich and poor.

Wowereit won re-election twice but his popularity sunk in recent years. He had already announced he would not stand in the next Berlin elections.