Protest threatens to derail Merkel's election plans

 

DAZED AND bloodied pensioners are not your typical German demonstrators, but there’s nothing typical about the growing protest over the future of Stuttgart’s central station.

What began life as a regional rail row has turned into a running battle with the potential to destabilise Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hold on her ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The controversial plan, dubbed Stuttgart 21, envisages demolishing large parts of the 1928 terminus station to create an underground thoroughfare for high-speed trains. Demolition work began in the summer, but protests turned violent last week when 30,000 people gathered to stop mature trees next to the station being felled to make way for the building site.

Police deployed water cannon, teargas and pepper spray and eventually drove back protesters. Images of bloodied protesters and reports of police beating schoolchildren have transformed Stuttgart 21 from an infrastructure project into political disaster for Dr Merkel.

Those protesting are not disaffected anarchists or Green environmentalists, but Stuttgart lawyers, doctors and business owners – all traditional CDU voters.

As protesters returned to the site yesterday, it emerged that Rüdiger Grube, chief executive of the Deutsche Bahn rail company, has received death threats over the project and has been placed under police protection.

The state government of Baden-Württemberg, a conservative-liberal coalition mirroring Dr Merkel’s own administration in Berlin, insists the €7 billion project is vital for the region’s economic future.

Its central aim is to link Stuttgart into the Magistrale, a 1,500km high-speed line connecting Paris and Budapest via Strasbourg, Munich, Salzburg and Vienna.

One minister in Stuttgart called opponents “spoiled” for opposing the plan that will leave Stuttgart a building site for at least a decade.

“This project already has a 10-year delay because opponents went through every instance, losing every time, and now they have taken to the streets,” said Stuttgart’s CDU mayor, Wolfgang Schuster.

Acknowledging the growing distrust on both sides, the mayor conceded: “For me now it’s important to restore transparency and dialogue.” Opponents of Stuttgart 21 say the project is overly ambitious and a waste of money that will not bring the promised benefits. Opinion polls suggest that two-thirds of Stuttgart residents and over half of those in Baden-Württemberg oppose the project.

“I never demonstrated before; 1968 and all that was always something for other people,” said Gisela Glaser (59), a therapist and, as she puts it, “former CDU voter”.

“But I’ve been protesting since people informed me about the project. I wept when the trees were cut down.” Ms Glaser’s is just one face in the crowd of protesters, largely middle class CDU voters.

Their anger is what makes Stuttgart 21 so dangerous for Dr Merkel. Next March, these same voters go to the polls in the south-west to choose a new government in Baden-Württemberg. For over half a century voters in this largely conservative region of Germany have voted consistently for the CDU. By throwing her support, with unusual decisiveness, behind the unpopular Stuttgart 21 and the untested state premier, Stefan Mappus, Dr Merkel’s political fate is now linked to the March vote.

And things are not looking good: from historical highs of 56 per cent, the CDU will now struggle to poll 30 per cent. Worse still, Stuttgart 21 has limited the CDU’s post-election options, too. Recent political flirtation with the Green Party suggested that, after the poll, Baden-Württemberg might be home to Germany’s first-ever CDU-Green state government. With the parties on opposite sides of the Stuttgart 21 barricade, however, those dreams have been put on ice.