German Railway Controversy Sends Angela Merkel Off Track

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Michaela Rehle / Reuters

Demonstrators protest against police violence and the demolition of the historical Stuttgart train station to make way for the Stuttgart 21 underground railway station

When an image of Dietrich Wagner, a 66 year-old pensioner, was beamed across Germany on September 30, the ongoing protests in Stuttgart against a controversial railway project took on a more troubling dimension. Wagner was one of thousands of protesters — a mix of environmental campaigners, middle-class locals and students — who took to the streets to demonstrate against "Stuttgart 21" — a multi-billion-dollar plan to reconstruct the city's train station. The peaceful rally quickly degenerated into violence. Police used water cannons and pepper spray to clear a park where activists had gathered, injuring more than 100 people, including young children; other protesters who had chained themselves to a fence claimed police had beaten them and sprayed them with tear gas. And, perhaps most worrying for city officials, a photographer snapped a picture of Wagner with blood streaming from his eyes. With one photo a regional dispute over an unpopular building project instantly transformed into a national issue — and the political repercussions are now reverberating all the way to Berlin.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) are feeling the shock waves the most. The party faces a key regional election in the state of Baden-Württemberg, which counts Stuttgart as its capital, next March. The region has been a conservative stronghold since 1953, but recent polls suggest support for the CDU is eroding fast — and the ongoing protests are only speeding the decline. The current CDU governor, Stefan Mappus, is a staunch supporter of the scheme and defended the recent police action, claiming officers were confronted with stone-throwing protesters. Surveys now show that a new coalition of the Greens and Social Democrats could rout his government in the March vote.

For Merkel, that would be a bitter pill to swallow. With her center-right coalition lagging behind the opposition Social Democrats and Greens at the federal level, Merkel made the uncharacteristic move of sticking her neck out and throwing her weight behind the "Stuttgart 21" project. On Sep. 15, Merkel told lawmakers in the Bundestag that the state election on March 27 would "be a referendum for the people on the future of Baden-Württemberg, the 'Stuttgart 21' project and many other projects which will stand for the future of this country."

Analysts say Merkel's decision to back the rail scheme could return to haunt her. "Chancellor Merkel was under pressure from her conservative party to support the rail project but it may be a big mistake," says Gerd Langguth, professor of political science at the University of Bonn. "If the conservatives lose the election in Baden-Württemberg, it'll be a heavy blow to Chancellor Merkel and will seriously undermine her credibility." Langguth says that many core conservative voters have taken part in the demonstrations in Stuttgart, part of a "growing public dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and politicians."

The demonstrations have been gathering momentum for weeks. Under the plans — which have been in the pipeline since 1988 — the historic railway station in Stuttgart will be partly destroyed to make way for a new underground rail interchange which, advocates claim, will provide better links to high-speed rail lines, create thousands of new jobs and transform the provincial city into a major transport hub. But supporters have been outnumbered by demonstrators who have vented their anger ever since demolition work started this summer. The protesters argue the public wasn't properly consulted over the $5.7 billion plan — an expense they see as extravagant at a time when Germans are being asked to tighten their belts. "This is a hugely expensive project — some experts say the costs may reach $25 billion — for a useless rail station which no one wants and no one needs," says Matthias von Herrmann, an anti-Stuttgart 21 campaigner.

There are environmental concerns, too. "Around 300 trees, some dating back 200 years, are under threat if they destroy the park, the Schlossgarten, next to the rail station — it's an environmental disaster and the public has been steamrollered," von Herrmann says. Environmental campaigners have written an open letter to Chancellor Merkel urging her to stop the project, while opposition parties have called for a referendum on the issue. National opinion is stacked against Merkel: an Oct. 7 survey found that 54% of Germans oppose the Stuttgart rail scheme.

Any hopes of a deal now rest on the aged shoulders of 80 year-old Heiner Geissler, a veteran conservative and former secretary general of the CDU; the governor of Baden-Württemberg has appointed him mediator in the dispute. With all sides digging in for a long fight, it's a thankless task. Geissler ruffled a few feathers when he announced on Oct. 7 that construction work would be suspended while talks between rail officials, government representatives and protesters were under way. But government officials were quick to point out that the project remained on course, and the building work would continue. Rüdiger Grube, the boss of Germany's rail operator, Deutsche Bahn, who's reported to be under 24-hour police protection after receiving death threats, has denied any knowledge of a temporary stop to building. As for the protesters, they're in a feisty mood: campaigners have warned they will stage another big demonstration on Oct. 9 which is expected to draw thousands of angry residents to downtown Stuttgart. Chancellor Merkel faces an uphill battle if she wants to get the CDU in Baden-Württemberg back on track.