Germany: Unrest grows

Opposition growing against Stuttgart 21, nuclear power and cuts. Opinion poll shows – Germany is in a state of political crisis

Stuttgart 21 – a major transport project to redevelop the city’s railway infrastructure – has provoked mass protests that are unprecedented in the history of Stuttgart, capital of Baden-Württemberg (a state in south western Germany). However the turnout on the protests would have been exceptional anywhere. Four protests over a ten day period drew 20,000 (30/9.), 100,000 (1/10.), 55,000 (4/10.) and 150,000 (9/10.) out of Stuttgart’s 600,000 inhabitants. Since then, twice a week, tens of thousands have continued to demonstrate. Elsewhere in Germany, thousands took to the streets in response to the government’s decision to extend the operational life of the country’s nuclear power stations. On 18 September more than 100,000 demonstrators marched in Berlin, while in Munich 50,000 protestors formed a human chain. Tens of thousands are expected to turn out in early November when Castor trains transport nuclear waste across the country. This autumn has already brought rail strikes and will also see “Weeks of Action” and demonstrations organised by the trade unions, which are likely to mobilise tens of thousands of working people.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stuck her neck out by backing Stuttgart 21 to the hilt. Now she risks getting the chop – at very least it will cost the main government party dearly. And the costs of Stuttgart 21 are part of the problem. Officially set at €4.1 billion, this huge project (16 new tunnels, 18 new bridges, 60 km of new track, three new stations, re-development of the city centre) will actually cost at least a further €3 billion.

Merkel’s speech in the German Bundestag, expressing her implacable support for the project and the brutal police attack on demonstrators on 30 September led to a marked shift in the character of the movement. It’s no longer about the local impact of a rail transport project – Stuttgart 21 has become a major political issue that has stirred up feelings across the country. The twice weekly protests that have been held week after week are not just against a new underground central railway station – they express anger against a political elite that arrogantly rides roughshod over public opinion and does not shirk from the blatant use of violence in order to uphold the interests of the banks and business.

It is rare for any government to show the extent to which capitalists dictate policy and show who is really calling the shots. It took just a few ads in the papers and a friendly chat in the Chancellor’s office for the bosses of the big energy companies to get a policy change permitting the working life of the nuclear power stations to be extended. Yet every national opinion poll had shown that the majority of German people opposed this move, clearly determined by financial self-interest. These same interests influence decisions on Stuttgart 21. There’s a lot at stake for German railways (Deutsche Bahn), the car industry, property speculators and construction firms. What we’ve seen on the streets of Stuttgart has been an explosion of frustration and pent-up anger over the growing sense of betrayal

DeutschlandTREND underscores government’s political bankruptcy

The October DeutschlandTREND survey carried out by Infratest dimap reveals that 79% of those interviewed are less than satisfied or totally dissatisfied with government policies; 63% think the government’s decisions over the past few weeks were wrong. The Christian Democrat (Conservative)-Liberal coalition government received least support for its policies on health – with 80% against. Between 59% and 83% of the people questioned thought that policies on pensions, the way in which employers treat their workers, wages, the treatment of vulnerable sections of society, the tax system and the salaries paid to top managers were all unfair.

In this German-wide survey, 54% were against Stuttgart 21, with only 33% in favour. There is a lot of talk about political apathy and lack of interest – yet only 11% said they could not offer an opinion on this issue. Even among Liberal Party (FDP) supporters, there was a majority against Stuttgart 21 and among supporters of the main conservative coalition partner (CDU) 40% disagreed with the project. The survey showed 71% disapproved of police actions against the protests and 76% said their sympathy was with the demonstrators.

The survey shows that a huge gulf has opened up between the majority of society – i.e. the working population, the unemployed, pensioners and youth – on the one hand and the government and the established parties on the other. For many years, the establishment parties and capitalist institutions have lost much of their authority and people lost confidence in them. This process seems to have reached a new level. What other explanation is there for the results which show 80% stating that “important decisions are made without really taking the interests of the people into account” and 85% claiming “most politicians don’t know what real life is like”? Demonstrations, say 94%, are a legitimate way of making “politicians listen to people’s opinions”.

Stormy autumn in store for Merkel

A stormy autumn

All of this is a sign that the German government could be in for an autumn of discontent. Storm clouds have already gathered over Stuttgart 21 and nuclear energy. The crucial question is: whether these movements will link up with the issue of government attacks on the social and economic front. Should this happen, it would threaten the legitimacy of the government itself.

There is definitely widespread opposition to the decision to raise the retirement age to 67, the increasing trend towards agency work and temporary contracts, the idea of universal lump sum health contributions (i.e. irrespective of income) and the government’s cuts package. These trends are all hugely unpopular amongst most people. Yet there has been some support given to the Hartz IV “reforms” (benefit cuts for the jobless) with certain layers being persuaded that people on benefits are to blame for their situation. This trend has been fuelled by some prominent politicians, notably the Liberal vice-chancellor Westerwelle who claimed the jobless live “in Roman decadence” and scandalously by Sarrazin, a Social Democrat and former Finance Minister of the Berlin state government, who believes pension increases “are completely senseless” and recommends that government should prepare older citizens for a "long term decline to the level of subsistence”. Although these Social Darwinist views have found an echo it is a contradictory situation: 73% also argue that the weak and vulnerable are treated unfairly.

Clearly the potential for big protests and struggle is gaining momentum. The movement around Stuttgart 21 is an answer to sceptics who maintain people are not prepared to fight back or get involved. But how can this potential be channelled and mobilised?

The campaigns against Stuttgart 21 and the extension of the operating life-cycle of nuclear power stations are single issues for which the solutions are immediate and unambiguous. They pose a clear alternative to government policy: Stop the construction of Stuttgart 21 and close down the power stations. There’s little room for compromise, so the people involved in the campaigns feel that it is worthwhile taking to the streets and fighting for a clear goal.

If the trade union leaders were to take a similar lead and campaign for clear, uncompromising alternatives to government policy we could witness similarly big mobilisations. In fact, with six million people organised in the unions, an even bigger mobilisation would be entirely possible. Unfortunately, the experience of many workers and TU activists has been that the leadership is only willing to hold demos as a way of letting off steam prior to negotiations with the government and/or the bosses’ organisations which end with the offering their members a rotten compromise. The opponents of Stuttgart 21 have shown greater resolve, refusing to enter talks with the government of Baden-Württemburg unless construction work and planning procedures are halted first. It is an example the union leaders should emulate. It is important that the leaders of the campaign and the unions expose Stuttgart 21 as an expensive business-friendly project with big social and environmental drawbacks for ordinary people. It is essential that the mass movement against Stuttgart 21 is linked to the “Weeks of Action” organised by the unions. Then instead of the token protests planned to kick off the autumn campaign we could see a mass movement challenging the Merkel-Westerwelle government: a movement which could link up with the mass strikes of southern Europe.

The significance of Stuttgart 21

Stuttgart 21 is perhaps a nemesis for Mappius, the Christian Democrat premier of the regional government. At this stage it is not clear whether he will stick to his guns or if his government can survive. The youth group Jugendoffensive gegen Stuttgart 21 have claimed that police used agent provocateurs to incite violence among demonstrators. If this can be proven, the regional government could be forced to resign. The situation is developing into a catastrophe for the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Liberals (FDP) in Baden-Württemberg who are facing tough regional elections in March 2011.

The fact that the retired leading CDU politician, Heino Geissler, has been brought in as a mediator between protestors, the regional government and German railways has already been seen as a success for the protest movement (partly because some, but not all, of the construction work has been halted for the time of the negotiations – however the fact that there is no complete stop in the construction work however is criticised by many protesters). However this move is also an attempt to divide the movement and divert attention away from the political issues which are at the core of the dispute. If the regional government takes a beating then this would seriously undermine Merkel’s government. Any defeat inflicted by protest movements would weaken the capitalist establishment and any government would find it harder to push through unpopular measures given the increased confidence that protestors would gain from even a partial victory.

This, in itself, would be a reason for the trade unions, the Left Party DIE LINKE, the anti-cuts alliances and social movements and campaigns to make the struggle against Stuttgart 21 a central nationwide campaign. It could be used to show how bare capitalist interests always take precedence over democracy, the interests of local people, society and environment. It could be the rallying point for nationwide solidarity and mobilising support to take part in mass demonstrations in Stuttgart. A victory over premier Mappus and German railways’ boss, Grube, would greatly encourage every protest against pro-business policies and unfair social legislation. It would significantly shift the balance of power between the ruling class and the masses of people, whose opposition to government policies increasingly raises the need for real alternatives.

Political alternative needed

Irrespective of whether the fight against Stuttgart 21 succeeds or not, nothing will change fundamentally without a strong political alternative to the pro-business parties.

There is something farcical about the Social Democrats and Green Party portraying themselves as the nation’s champions of social justice and environmental protection. It beggars belief that the Greens are actually picking up support in the opinion polls – this is the party which threw its principles out of the window in order to serve in national, regional and city governments of different colours. In 1999, they ditched their former pacifist position to support German troops being sent to Kosovo; in 2003 they gave support to the savage counter-reforms of benefits outlined in Agenda 2010 and Hartz IV. They compromised on their cornerstone policies on nuclear power jettisoning the demand for a complete stop and thus paving the way for the latest decision to extend the operational life of existing nuclear power stations. Having served alongside the conservatives in local councils, in 2008 they broke their main election pledge to join a conservative CDU-Green state government in Hamburg. Thus the Greens, formerly seen as left of centre, joined their former arch rivals to form the first “black-green” coalition at a regional state level. The SPD is no better and since it lost its place in Germany’s previous coalition government it has failed to regain any of the support it once enjoyed. Increased support for the Greens does not reflect a sound trend in their favour. In the absence of alternatives, support for the Greens has picked up but 2009 saw the liberal FDP gain support which it now has completely lost: in both cases this rise in support is volatile and unstable.

DIE LINKE is currently the only party which in any sense could politically represent the interests of the majority of working people. Yet it must adopt alternative policies to the pro-business agenda of the other parties and use the potential for change expressed by the big protest movements. Above all, it needs to adopt a clear programme and set itself apart from the SPD and Greens. The more political compromises DIE LINKE makes, the closer it moves towards these two parties, the less likely it is to channel support and emerge as a credible opposition. Who will vote for a new party with the same programme as the SPD when they can vote for the original version? Only a clear anti-capitalist programme and a party that sees the main arena for struggle in society itself and not in the chambers of parliament will gain mass support. It is vital that DIE LINKE puts an end to un-political internal bickering, power struggles and fights over personal privileges in order to channel its energy into a real struggle for a socialist programme. Only then will it be able to intervene in the current movements and provide Germany with a political alternative that represents and defends the interests of the mass of society.

This is a slightly revised version from an article which first appeared on SAV’s website on October 11, 2010

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November 2010