September 18, 2010
GERMAN Chancellor Angela Merkel is not used to seeing her conservative constituents on the streets, occupying buildings and scuffling with police. But that is her nightmare as a controversial rail-modernisation project threatens to derail her government in Berlin.
Last week, some 69,000 protesters against the so-called ”Stuttgart 21” rail project formed a human chain through the southern German city.
These are not students, disaffected leftists, anarchists and militant green groupies. To Dr Merkel’s dismay, they are lawyers, doctors, pharmacists and small business people – the solid core, in fact, of her CDU party, and they are very angry indeed.
”There is a whiff of Paris in 1968 in the air of stolid Stuttgart,” wrote the French daily Le Monde. More than a whiff, in fact; earlier this week a police union warned it needed manpower and money to handle the escalating demonstrations.
Trouble began last month when demolition work began on the main train station, a listed building constructed in 1928. A large part of it will have to go to make way for the mega-project that is Stuttgart 21.
Demonstrators turned out in their thousands. They blocked the construction site. Then they clambered on to the station roof. Soon stones and bottles flew and a peaceful protest had morphed, in the words of the city police chief, into ”intolerable civil disobedience”.
It is planned to make Stuttgart a key subterranean station on one of the longest high-speed lines in Europe, linking it with Paris, Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. The plan involves 16 tunnels and cuttings, 18 bridges, 64 kilometres of new rail lines, three new stations and a price that could double from current estimates to nearly 11 billion euros ($A15 billion).
In a country where kindergartens are closing down under the austerity budget and school children are asked to bring their own toilet paper, the middle classes are finally on the march.
The conservative mayor is worried. A recent poll showed 63 per cent of Stuttgart residents oppose the project. This comes six months away from a regional poll that Dr Merkel’s party can ill afford to lose, battered and weakened as she is.
But there is no relief in sight. Although rail operator Deutsche Bahn and the mayor have offered talks, protesters want nothing less than abandonment of what they see as a colossal white elephant that will forever alter Stuttgart’s character.
”Gruess Gott,” the traditional greeting of southern Germans, has been replaced on the city’s streets with ”Oben Bleiben” – literally meaning stay above, which is where they want the station to remain.
”I am prepared to throw stones if that is what it takes,” said kindergarten teacher Klara Seewald, 46. ”This has been in the works for two decades, was shelved once because of costs and now has been seen to have limited benefit for Germany or Europe.
”It takes a lot to get me on the streets but I am not giving in now.”
Following last week’s mass demonstration and the German police union’s call for reinforcements, protesters took to the streets in Berlin on Thursday.