The wheels of change turn slowly in Germany. The country has been planning to privatize its railway for the past 15 years and seemed tantalizingly close to going ahead with it next year.
But the plan appears to have been derailed by the center-left Social Democrats who voted at a party conference last weekend to demand fundamental changes to the privatization -- changes Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives have already rejected.
Critics will say the dispute shows once again how bad Germany is at modernizing itself. Supporters of the country's elaborate system of checks and balances say it proves that democracy works many Germans were getting increasingly worried that a privatized rail network would hike fares and shut down unprofitable routes. And the plan in its current form had been criticized as being over-complex, contradictory and too focused on funding the railway's global expansion rather than boosting competition and efficiency on German tracks.
The Social Democrats (SPD), junior partner to Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats in the governing grand coalition, have embarked on a leftward shift to woo back voters. As part of that shift, delegates at the weekend party congress in Hamburg bowed to the wishes of grassroots supporters.
They passed a motion calling for the sell-off to be in the form of non-voting stock -- so-called "people's shares" -- in an attempt to deter major investors from taking control and causing a deterioration of domestic rail services in the pursuit of profit.
The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) were quick to respond. "If the SPD doesn't drop its people's share model, that will be the end of the partial privatization," said CDU General Secretary Ronald Pofalla.
German commentators on Tuesday assess the SPD's decision to block rail privatization.
Left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:
"There's no point waiting for the privatization of the railway, the case is closed for the time being."
"It is embarrassing for the SPD's ministers who approved the project in cabinet. One of them, Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, even spearheaded the project and now has egg on his face."
"Of course the engine drivers' strike wasn't favorable for a rail privatization. The reckless determination with which the railway's management is sticking to its guns has sowed doubt about how circumspect and considerate it will be in dealing with other matters."
Left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Only a year ago the privatization of the railway appeared to be cut and dried and all protest against it seemed pointless the public was largely excluded from the talks, so public opinion was irrelevant. And for a long time most of the media was only interested in the financial details rather than in whether the railway should be privatized at all."
"What followed was a lesson in democracy. An alliance of transport experts, environmental activists, left-wing trade unionists and critics of globalization showed initiative, expertize and tenacity and in a short time managed to turn around sentiment and thereby overturn the majorities in the DGB trade union federation and the SPD. The fact that the SPD leadership had to give in to pressure from the party grass roots in many areas also shows that inner-party democracy can work."
"The new public interest in the railway should now be used. Not just to prevent a possible privatization through the back door, but also to get an effective railway which focuses on its core tasks; a railway which is close to the people and whose long-term financing is secure even without investors."
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The railway is a backbone of this country. It's the most important company remaining in state ownership. No wonder that a few hundred SPD delegates had such a difficult time dealing with the partial privatization of the railway last weekend. They spoke of millions of citizens who feared that they would lose something as a result of the railway privatization. Something so important to the nation can't simply be sold to private investors, not even partially."
"The SPD delegates had the right motivation but the impact is unfortunately disastrous. It was right to prevent a privatization that that would have served the railway operator Deutsche Bahn rather than rail transport itself. But it's disastrous that the privatization of the railway has been put on ice. The strategists of the grand coalition are to blame. They asked the wrong questions about the sell-off. Instead of soberly asking what kind of privatization would serve the country best, they only focused on the impact on the railway. The coalition engaged in a dispute about whether 49 percent of the track, one of the guarantors of our mobility, should or shouldn't be sold to private investors. As if an infrastructure built and maintained over decades was a burden that the state had to rid itself of."
"Europe's largest economy came up with a Kafkaesque privatization plan, nodded through by the cabinet and brought into parliament by the two main parties. It calls for the track network, stations and overhead power lines to somehow belong to the government and the railway at the same time. The SPD's idea of a people's share crowns the proposal. Private investors are meant to hand over money for a 'privatization' but they can't have a say in the business. You can't get more absurd than that."
Süddeutsche writes that the government was seduced by Deutsche Bahn's vision of becoming a global logistics player, of being big enough to compete in the European railway market.
"But how does the railway benefit from being the number two in global sea freight transport, the number three in global air freight and the number six in global contract logistics? (as the railway's own advertising states). The coalition didn't pursue this question."
"The state-owned railway is no alternative to the poorly privatized railway. The SPD will have to come up with a third way -- a plan under which railway subsidiaries are privatized but the track network remains state-owned. The state wouldn't lose anything, but railway users could benefit: from a railway which has to fight for every customer."
Business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"After the decision by the SPD party conference, the probability that the railway will be floated on the stock market before 2010 has fallen to zero. For ideological reasons the SPD is now opposed to any privatization. That's why no party conference will decide on the flotation in the foreseeable future. That is fundamentally bad. But the fact that the government's current privatization plan has been stopped is being welcomed even by many conservative politicians, and for good reasons."
"The government's current plan would hardly improve competition at all."
-- David Crossland, 2 p.m. CET