No, You May Not Decide

In German political terms this year of 2011 was always going to be about not any grand national-level election to (possibly) change the faces at the very top, but rather a very numerous series of elections at lower levels of that country’s federal system, none of them of decisive importance in itself but collectively fully capable of pointing to the likely result of the next truly national-level election, scheduled for 2012.

The latest of these occurred last Sunday (among other places) in Baden-Württemberg, the “other” southern federal German state (i.e. the one that’s not Bavaria), and Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party continued its long record of performing poorly in such local elections. To give you a pretty precise idea of what exercises voters in that particular prosperous corner of Germany, it’s generally agreed that the election revolved around just two issues: Fukushima (i.e. “nuclear power is dangerous”) and Stuttgart 21. The Green Party, especially, was on the “correct” side of both questions; so the Green Party won big, more than doubling its share of the vote and climbing to a position where it can lead a coalition state government together with its traditional political ally, the Social Democrat Party.

But “Stuttgart 21”? That’s the plan to re-order the Stuttgart main train station, and train traffic through that area generally, on a massive scale. It has been in existence for about 15 years, but it was only last year that work got started in earnest on making it reality. It was then, naturally, that thousands of local residents became thoroughly shocked at what they had agreed to – or what had been agreed to in their name by their political representatives. Humongous excavations; thousands of trees cut down; miles of new tunnels to be bored under their feet; oh, and billions of euros in public expense – and for what? For shaving a few minutes off of a train passenger’s travel-time through the Stuttgart area? No, very many local citizens did not like what they were seeing at all, and what followed was a series of massive demonstrations – complete with widespread civil disobedience and even violent confrontations with the police – of the sort that had not been seen in German streets for quite a long time, maybe since the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s. (Well, the 1989 East German street-demonstrations were pretty massive too, and non-violent – but hey, that was different!)

Quite apart from this sight of so many Germans acting, well, so un-German, this whole phenomenon must be of great interest to political theorists because of the disconnect it reflects between genuine popular will and that Will’s imperfect manifestation in government. The leading motivator for the vehemence with which Stuttgart 21 was protested against was, on the one hand, the assertion by the state government (of that time) that it had to go through, since it was planned, budgeted and approved by a legitimate democratic government – versus the feeling of the protestors that, despite all that, NO, they had never agreed to anything like what they were now seeing, and they would not allow it to be carried out, no matter what! Now, with last Sunday’s (relative) victory of the Green Party in state elections, one can say that that Will of the People has been somewhat more clearly expressed. (Even though the upcoming state premier from the Green Party – probably a guy named Winfried Kretschmann – will be forced into an unpalatable choice between canceling the project, while still having to pay plenty of contracted money for nothing to those companies involved in building, or letting it go ahead and thereby violating everything he and his party are supposed to stand for.)

Or has it been clearly expressed at all? Look again: Chancellor Merkel’s CDU party – definitely the party in favor of Stuttgart 21, if there ever was one – had been the largest party by far in Baden-Württemberg, and in fact had ruled the state for many years. But after the election the CDU was still the biggest party – it’s just that the Greens (especially) together with the SPD had picked up enough seats in the legislature to collectively be bigger. This is supposed to be a definitve vote of no-confidence in the railroad project? (Well, it was good enough for the Deutsche Bahn, which in the wake of Sunday’s election declared a stop to work on Stuttgart 21 until it could find someone again with some political authority with whom to discuss it.)

This Really Needs a Referendum

No, far better would be a referendum: up-or-down, yes or no to Stuttgart 21. Then again, Germany does not do referenda – this all goes back to the bad old days when dictators (Mussolini; Napoleon III) would use generally-phrased referenda gain license to do generally whatever they wanted, and they are indeed forbidden at the federal level and have not been carried out at all in the entire history (since 1949, of course) of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Nonetheless, a referendum would still be best, even if used for the first time, and both the winning and losing sides in those recent elections have declared that they would like one to be held. Good enough? Alas, no, as this article in the FAZ by Corinna Budras makes clear. For a couple of well-respected German constitutional scholars have looked into this referendum question, and they don’t think it is allowable (even though the Baden-Württemberg state constitution does allow it). One says such transportation matters are not a state but rather a federal affair – i.e. it’s something ultimately for Chancellor Merkel’s government to decide, so if you want to change anything you’ll have to wait until next year to boot her out. The other claims that a referendum is not allowable because none is that impacts on state budget issues – and Stuttgart 21 does. And anyway, as Budras points out, although the state constitution does allow such a referendum, it requires that at least 33% of all eligible voters vote in it for its results to be valid, something hardly guaranteed to happen even with the passions that Stuttgart 21 has inflamed.

Again, at this point the Stuttgart 21 project has been underway long enough that it makes no sense just to stop it on sheer economic grounds. Many, many citizens – possibly an effective political majority – nonetheless would still dearly love to do just that, but it seems they will never actually get the chance to do so.

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