After weeks of peaceful protests, distressing images came through late on Thursday showing the aftermath of the first violent encounters between opponents of the Stuttgart 21 rail project and police.
Protestors blockaded the park where building contractors were due to start cutting down trees. The police were given the job of removing them.
The results were ugly. But who is in the right? The supporters, who’ve watched as the project went through 20 years of democratic scrutiny, or the opponents who say the popular will of the people is being ignored?
Let the people decide, argued centre-left weekly Die Zeit. Felling trees in the Schlossgarten should be delayed for six months until the state election next spring, which could serve as an unofficial referendum.
Two weeks ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked that the state election would be a referendum on the project. City officials should take her words literally, the paper wrote.
“There is only six months to go until the election date in March. One could therefore simply wait on chopping down the trees. Given the planning has gone on since 1985, half a year’s delay isn’t any big deal.”
The left-wing taz argued that the people blockading the park were the real conservatives, given they were standing up to the might of an overreaching government. Baden-Württemberg’s conservative Christian Democratic premier Stefan Mappus should lose his job, it wrote.
“The particularly brave citizens who, in the face of water cannons, sang the national anthem, see themselves as legitimate representatives of the state and at the same time deny this role to those who sent the police into the park.
“The reaction of premier Mappus, who wants to deal with the facts through police and chainsaws, will cement this role reversal. This rough treatment against his own constituency must cost Mappus his office.”
The local Stuttgarter Zeitung feared the ugly scenes from the Schlossgarten were a taste of things to come, given supporters and opponents seemed irreconcilable.
“Too rigid are the positions, too far is the project progressed after in total more than 20 years in the planning,” it wrote.
The solution was a greater appreciation that democracy meant peacefully respecting the views of one’s opponents. Some protestors were pushing the limits of their right to demonstrate. At the same time, there were legitimate questions about the proportionality of the police reaction, the paper wrote.
“Thursday was a sad day in Stuttgart. The people in charge of the campaigners and the opponents carry a huge responsibility. In the end one can only appeal to both sides to be moderate and return to the discussion table as quickly as possible – so that things don’t end even more badly.”
Daily Badische Zeitung, from the Baden-Württemberg city of Freiburg, said that both the construction of Stuttgart 21 and the resulting protests were inevitable, but predicted there would be political fallout.
“Of course the state parliamentary election will be influenced by this matter, and the conservative Christian Democrats as staunch supporters will probably get a receipt,” the paper wrote. “In the end there are always winners and losers. A society – even if it values mutual agreements above all – must sometimes endure this.”
Another Baden-Württemberg daily, the Südkurier in the southern city of Konstanz, wrote that turning water cannons and pepper spray on a group of students was incomprehensible.
“But the worst part of yesterday’s escalation is the impression that the will of the people will be beaten down,” the paper said. “The confrontation in Stuttgart is an expression of the deep divide between the government and the voters. Those above and below no longer understand each other, and this situation hurts democracy more that the real wounds sustained by the demonstrators.”
The Kieler Nachrichten from the northerly state of Schleswig-Holstein also weighed in, writing that regardless of whether protestors agreed with the Stuttgart 21 project, it was brought about democratically.
“It’s the right of opponents to demonstrate against the construction of the subterranean train station,” the paper said. “But the right to try and retroactively hinder the construction is not theirs. Police must proceed against this – with violence if necessary. If this doesn’t happen, then instead of democracy, anarchy reigns, a space without laws.”