Germany: The referendum on the “Stuttgart 21” rail project

By Ulrich Rippert and Marianne Arens
30 November 2011

A referendum on the controversial rail project “Stuttgart 21” took place on Sunday in the state of Baden-Württemberg. In recent years, the protests against this project—the rebuilding of Stuttgart’s main railway station—have led to violent clashes, a change of state government and the installation of the first Green Party state premier.

In the end, the referendum was rejected. With almost 50 percent of the electorate going to the polls, 59 percent voted in favour of building the new station. This is reason enough for a critical review.

Last year, the protests against a construction project that had been prepared over 15 years suddenly drew in large sections of the population, especially from the middle class. Week after week, thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, took to the streets.

The protests against the felling of trees and other environmental issues—regularly expressed in relation to large construction projects—were joined by concern with the immense costs of the project in times of social cuts and anger about the arrogance of the powerful circles who were ruthlessly pushing through the “Stuttgart 21” (S21) project. But from the start, the movement was politically confused. Besides conservationists and opponents of arbitrary state power, it also included conservative villa owners who felt their idyll threatened.

The goal of preventing a large-scale infrastructure project—something that with proper planning and preparation could make sense and improve conditions for many people—led to petty-bourgeois and conservative forces dominating the movement. As a result, different parties were able to exploit the protests for their own political objectives.

The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) state government under Prime Minister Mappus opposed the protests. Mappus tried to use them to demonstrate his strength and firmness, insisting repeatedly he would not yield to pressure from the street. On September 30 of last year, he and his interior minister organised the use of brutal force; special police units were drawn together from all over Germany, using water cannons, tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. Many suffered lacerations, broken ribs, and concussions; hundreds were injured, and a pensioner was almost completely blinded.

But the provocation backfired. Rather than intimidating the protest, the violent police action drove even more demonstrators onto the streets. Nine days later, Stuttgart witnessed its largest-ever demonstration, with more than a hundred thousand participants.

Mappus desperately needed time for an orderly retreat. Now, it was not only his own fate that was at stake, but also that of Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU). She had rallied behind the Stuttgart 21 project, declaring the Baden-Württemberg state election in March of this year to be a plebiscite on the controversial project.

The Green Party then hastened to the aid of the beleaguered Mappus and the chancellor, using the opportunity to position the Greens as a party upholding the authority of the state. They had spoken out strongly against the railway project and used the wave of protest to advance themselves politically. However, they did not want to be swept to the head of government on a wave of protest, which placed the state’s authority into question and was directed against the close interdependence of business interests and politics.

So the Greens enthusiastically endorsed the proposal for arbitration and even suggested the CDU member Heiner Geissler as lead arbitrator. The 81-year-old Geissler is one of the most experienced German politicians—he served for 12 years as general secretary of the CDU, was twice a minister under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and spent over 22 years in the German Bundestag (federal parliament). He is a leading advocate of Catholic social teaching, and sees social compromise as an effective means of suppressing the class struggle. Several years ago, he joined the anti-globalisation network Attac, which earned him the sympathy of the Greens.

The Greens nominated three of the eight negotiators in the arbitration talks, including Boris Palmer, mayor of Tübingen, and Winfried Kretschmann, then the chair of the Green Party faction in the state parliament and now state premier. Both were and are declared supporters of a coalition with the CDU and utilised the mediation talks to improve relations with the Christian Democrats.

In justifying his sympathies with the CDU to the taz newspaper, Palmer declared, “You need the support of big business for a new economic policy. It is much easier to achieve this with the CDU than with the SPD, even if the policies behind it are largely the same.”

Given the violent actions of the Mappus administration against the opponents of Stuttgart 21, the Greens were unable to justify a coalition with the CDU in their election campaign. The Green Party allied itself with the SPD, which like the CDU supported the rail project, and used the protests to get into the state government. In the state elections in late March, the CDU and Free Democratic Party (FDP) suffered massive losses, while the Greens achieved their best result so far, with 24 percent of the vote, and took over the leadership of the state executive.

The situation of working people has not improved since then. Kretschmann, who espouses “conservative values”, is heading a Green Party-SPD coalition whose social and economic policies follow seamlessly on from those of the CDU. His administration is implementing a strict austerity budget, cutting teaching jobs and other jobs in the public sector, and introducing fees for child care.

The Kretschmann government has upgraded police weaponry and maintains the best relations with the regional employers, particularly the large car companies, Daimler, Porsche and Bosch. Giving assurances to these corporations, Nils Schmid (SPD), the finance and economics minister and Kretschmann’s deputy, said, “It is clear; every Baden- Württemberg state government has petrol in its blood.”

However, the coalition was divided over the question of Stuttgart 21; the SPD supported the project and the Greens were officially against it. But Kretschmann and his supporters were looking for a way to wind down the protest movement. While the Greens had used the protests to come to power, they now had the problem of putting the genie they unleashed back in the bottle.

That is why it was so important for the state government that the referendum puts an end to the issue once and for all; whereby the actual content of the referendum became increasingly incidental. In large-scale media campaigns, both parties called for participation, according to the motto: No matter which way you vote, just take part in the referendum!

From the beginning, it was highly unlikely that Stuttgart 21 would be rejected in the referendum, because the Baden-Württemberg constitution requires a high level of participation. At least one third of all eligible voters (about 2.6 million people) would have needed to reject it. To cancel the Stuttgart 21 project would have needed twice as many votes as the Greens received in the recent state elections (1.3 million), and even more votes than the Greens and the SPD received combined.

In the end, fewer than one of five eligible voters rejected the project, while one in four supported it. The Greens are not unhappy about this result. As far back as in April, shortly after his election victory in Baden-Württemberg, Kretschmann said that “looking at it soberly”, the referendum will be defeated. Already, Kretschmann assumed that as head of the Green-SPD state government, he would implement the Stuttgart 21 project.

Towards the end, the fight for votes by both sides became increasingly meaningless. Both proponents and opponents often had almost identical slogans. While the proponents agitated “Stuttgart 21 makes sense” and “For the renewal of the Stuttgart railway hub”, opponents campaigned, “Yes to a modern traffic system throughout the state” and called for “Thrift and the truth on the costs”. Each side has published elaborately designed videos picturing green hills, medieval castles and the modern, emerging industrial production of the region.

The referendum, which is only about the state’s share of the construction costs for Stuttgart 21, is celebrated as a great democratic achievement. The pseudo-left organisations have advanced particularly crass arguments in this direction. Thus, the Left Party in Baden- Württemberg hailed the referendum, saying: “This is an historic day because finally the citizens can directly decide upon an issue.” The Maoists of the MLPD declared, “The fact there is even such a vote...is a great success. This concession was won by the long-lasting and inspiring people’s resistance against Stuttgart 21.”

In reality, the referendum decides nothing. The Green-SPD state government in Stuttgart hopes to be able draw a line under the unwelcome interference by the general population. Kretschmann wants to “lose with honour—and then finally to govern”, commented the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The World Socialist Web Site wrote more than a year ago: “It would not be the first time that the Greens enter government office on the back of a protest movement, only to stab their own voters in the back.”