The World from Berlin: 'The Boom Is Almost Over for the Greens'

Protests against "Stuttgart 21" turned violent this week, reigniting the debate over the controversial rail project. While the governing Greens warned protesters to remain peaceful, German commentators said the incident signalled trouble to come for the party.

A protester at the traditional Monday night demonstration against Stuttgart 21 this week. The event took a violent turn later that evening. Zoom
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A protester at the traditional Monday night demonstration against Stuttgart 21 this week. The event took a violent turn later that evening.

Violence has erupted once again at the building site of the controversial Stuttgart 21 rail project in Germany. Nine police officers were injured, one severely, in clashes with several hundred protesters in Stuttgart, the capital of the state of Baden-Württemberg, on Monday night. Activists reportedly tore down fences, threw homemade fireworks at police and allegedly attacked a plainclothes officer, who was hospitalized with head and neck injuries.

Until Monday night, the Stuttgart 21 site, which national rail provider Deutsche Bahn plans to rebuild into an underground through station, turning it into a major European hub, had been relatively quiet for some time. Last year opponents of the massive €4.1 billion infrastructure project launched a large protest movement, alleging it was too expensive, unnecessary and would damage the enviroment. In October, protests against the plans escalated, with more than 100 protesters injured in a police crackdown. A photograph of a demonstrator who had been hit in the eyes by water cannon shocked Germans and fuelled protesters' rage.

Protests continued even after Deutsche Bahn participated in a protracted review of the project with opponents, making a few minor changes but refusing to give up in the end. But after the state election in March, which yielded an historic victory for the environmentalist Greens, thanks in part to opposition to the project, Deutsche Bahn announced a temporary moratorium on constuction until the new government could be formed. But this month work resumed, and with it, larger scale protests.

The surprise of Monday night's skirmish with police prompted Green Party leaders to urge demonstrators to remain peaceful. "Violent attacks by individual protesters are not part of this," state Transportation Minister Winfried Hermann, a staunch opponent of the project, told news agency DPA. "Violence doesn't hurt Stuttgart 21 -- it hurts the protests instead."

Meanwhile the new Baden-Württemberg state government, led by the Greens' Winfried Kretschmann, has yet to decide whether it will allow the project to move forward. Stuttgart lawmakers are expecting the results of so-called "stress tests" on the viability of the project in July.

Although the Green Party's coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats agreed to hold a referendum on the issue, even some members within the coalition reportedly doubt this could stop it. Not only did planning begin more than a decade ago, but the project is led by Deutsche Bahn, which is in turn controlled by Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition -- who are not pleased about being ousted by the Greens in the southern state, and losing ground elsewhere, as support surged for the environmentalist party in recent state elections.

Wednesday's papers take a look at what the protest flare-up could mean for the Greens.

Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel writes:

"Those who act as if they can perform miracles during an election campaign must deliver or look like a fraud … The (renewed protests) clearly show that the opponents of Stuttgart 21 believed the Greens would stop the underground train station complex. But it was exactly this that governor Kretschmann either can't or won't do, because it would be too expensive for the state. The demonstrators, who destroyed the building site and nearly beat a plainclothes police officer to death, had clashes in mind from the beginning."

"Those who show up to protests with foam sprays, pliers and bolt cutters aren't concerned with freedom of opinion. Such a kit debunks the claim that the police escalated the situation as a lie. The state government coalition of Greens and Social Democrats still has four weeks until the results of the project's stress test are revealed. If the test shows the project is viable, Kretschmann is out of arguments."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"It doesn't take any courage to claim that the boom is almost over for the Greens. In the next two weeks they will be forced to lose one of their two groups of supporters. They only have to choose which group it should be -- either the radical opponents of atomic energy and Stuttgart 21, or those who want an ecologically responsible party."

"The fights at the building site fence show how aggressively the militant and stubborn Stuttgart 21 protesters will turn against the Greens-led government when they act legitimately and do what appears agreeable -- accepting the unpopular train station project."

"If governor Kretschmann obeys the protesters, making himself a political arm of the resistance, he loses not only his coalition partners the Social Democrats, but also every supporter who wants to see solid governing from the Greens."

"If they are prudent, they will choose realpolitik. But whether the Greens are prudent remains in question, because they're driven by fear -- the fear of growing smaller through the loss of one of their supporter groups."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"It was the end of September 2010 when the protests around the construction of the new Stuttgart main train station reached their saddest high point to date. A water cannon hit one demonstrator in the eyes and robbed him of his sight. Never again did we want to see such photos. But since Deutsche Bahn has been building again in Stuttgart, the situation has escalated once again."

"There is only one solution: Halting 'Stupid 21.' The state should get a modernized main train station, not an underground prestige project. The remaining billions can go to other more necessary rail projects. There would also be enough money left over to pay the already accumulated costs."

"Such a decision is only in the power of the federal government coalition, which controls Deutsche Bahn. But the government apparently has no interest in a solution to the conflict, certainly not since the Greens took over the Baden-Württemberg governor's seat."

Center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The Greens and the frivolous (activists) managed to create a climate of hysteria in which what happened with Fukushima also occurred. They created an atmosphere where justice and injustice couldn't be distinguished in the twilight of the Greens' alternative grey area. But this grey zone can only be governed well when things aren't called by name."

"In the language of the Greens' government members, the violence will be explained by saying Deutsche Bahn behaved incorrectly. Does that mean that in the future the debate over the pros and cons of the project can be conducted with fireworks instead of before a court? The question is just one card of many in governor Kretschmann's house of cards. We'll see how well he can play poker."

-- Kristen Allen

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