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Letter From Berlin: Stuttgart Train Station Furore Poses Risks for Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a penchant for staying out of domestic controversies. But she has changed her approach in the bitter dispute over the Stuttgart 21 train station project, aligning herself with hardline regional governor Stefan Mappus. It could prove to be a dangerous liaison for her. By SPIEGEL Staff

A dangerous liaison for Merkel? She has allied herself with Baden-Württemberg governor Stefan Mappus in the bitter row over the Stuttgart 21 train station project. Zoom
REUTERS

A dangerous liaison for Merkel? She has allied herself with Baden-Württemberg governor Stefan Mappus in the bitter row over the Stuttgart 21 train station project.

The increasingly fierce controversy over the planned construction of a new railway station in the southwestern city of Stuttgart is turning into a political problem for Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has shown uncharacteristic decisiveness in siding with the staunchly conservative regional government which is determined to push the project through despite mounting resistance from local citizens.

It is a remarkable change for Merkel, the leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who has tried to shift the party leftwards in recent years to boost its appeal with liberal city dwellers and to open up the possibility of forming alliances with the opposition Greens.

She has reformed the CDU and broken with the legacy of Helmut Kohl, the former CDU and chancellor, by embracing environmental issues and backing more generous welfare benefits.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Police Crackdown in Stuttgart

But her staunch backing of Stefan Mappus, the hard-line CDU governor of the state of Baden-Württemberg, highlights an about-turn that already became evident with her decision to extend the lifetimes of nuclear reactors by 12 years on average.

It is a dangerous liaison for Merkel. If Mappus, who regards himself as a new Kohl, loses the Baden-Württemberg state election next March, part of the blame for the defeat would fall on her. The violence shown last Thursday by police who used water cannons, truncheons and pepper spray to break up a demonstration by local people has deepened the conflict over the "Stuttgart 21" railway project -- a multibillion euro program that will see the conversion of the city's existing terminus station into an underground through station and whose costs are growing.

By backing the regional government, she is driving a wedge between the CDU and the opposition Green Party. The two parties had been sizing each other up as potential partners in a national government at some point in the future -- something that would have been completely unthinkable in the days of Kohl.

The fight in Stuttgart is reminiscent of the 1980s when a Green movement was battling Kohl's CDU.

End to Dream of CDU-Green Alliances

"Now the cultural differences between the conservatives and the Greens are so evident that the CDU-Green option has in effect been removed," Philipp Missfelder, the chairman of the CDU's youth arm, said with evident satisfaction. So far, the two parties only govern together in the city-state of Hamburg and in the small western state of Saarland, where they share power in a three-way coalition with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) Such collaborations had been seen as a possible harbinger of an alliance in a bigger state or at the national level one day.

Merkel was appalled when she saw television footage of last Thursday's violence. She thought the police had been too heavy-handed and she knew the Greens would blame her for the escalation. "Merkel is communicating with truncheons," the parliamentary group leader of the Greens, Renate Künast, fumed in a debate in parliament last Thursday.

"Stuttgart 21" has made Merkel assailable for the first time. Until now she was adept at keeping people guessing about where she really stood. Now she's committed herself to a railway station. She also has a number of reasons for doing so.

Merkel often meets fellow government leaders who tell her how quickly they are modernizing their countries. Merkel isn't a fan of China's brutal efficiency but she thinks Germany mustn't get any slower than it already is. And the railway project also has a European element to it, as well. The high-speed rail line that would connect Stuttgart to nearby Ulm is part of a European transportation infrastructure project that would eventually see a high-speed link running between Paris and Bratislava, Slovakia.

Baden-Württemberg Is a Key Bastion

Secondly, she knows the CDU cannot afford to lose the Baden-Württemberg election. The state is a bastion of conservative support and has had CDU governors since 1953. It is currently ruled by a coalition of CDU and the FDP, the same constellation as her national government. If the CDU loses Baden-Württemberg, her own coalition in Berlin will start to look shaky. That is why she has closed ranks with Mappus, even though he embodies the opposite of her modernization drive and of her desire for cuddly consensus.

Ever since last Thursday's clash, the opponents of Stuttgart 21 regard Mappus as the face of ruthless power and even suspect him of having engineered the violent confrontation between police and demonstrators in order to divide the opposition to the project between radicals and moderates.

Mappus doesn't see any point in making the CDU attractive to modern, liberal elites in big cities because doing so would alienate its core voters in rural regions and small towns where Baden-Württemberg elections are won and lost.

Until now, Merkel has pursued the opposite policy of attuning the party to city dwellers. But she had no choice but to support Mappus because her party wouldn't have forgiven her if she hadn't. She's reverting to pure CDU politics. Gone are the days when she would signal concessions to the Greens in energy policy or to the center-left Social Democratic Paty in social policy.

The battle lines are clearly drawn again between the left and right in German politics. Merkel no longer cares about the Greens. "Merkel effectively gave Mappus the all-clear," says Alexander Bonde, a member of parliament with the Greens who is married to a former MP from the CDU. He says the CDU has grown too arrogant in office to be a suitable coalition partner for the Greens in the foreseeable future. "The CDU must go into opposition before anything will be possible with them again," says Bonde.

MATTHIAS BARTSCH, RALF BESTE, SIMONE KAISER, DIRK KURBJUWEIT, RALF NEUKIRCH, ANTJE WINDMANN

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