Southern Germany, especially the state of Baden-Württemberg, is not known for being extraordinarily political or even rebellious, especially not when big infrastructure projects are planned. Its capital city, Stuttgart, is a very prosperous region with a strong automotive industry and a very strong economy in general, and it is now debating, fighting and demonstrating very hard and persistently on whether its train station should be completely restructured from a dead-end to a underground-drive-through train station.
After 15 years of planning and democratic decision making, the multibillion-dollar project was about to start two weeks ago, outraging an unexpectedly large portion of local as well as regional citizens. They feel betrayed by political parties, the regional government as well as the German railway company, the Bahn, because the project costs are rapidly increasing. And they feel that they have not been consulted on the project. A brutal police intervention has eventually created the picture of a revolution-like situation where students, the elderly, doctors and workers face the iron fist of the executive.
The acceleration of events has made it difficult for all to even discuss a way forward. It is a communicative disaster for the government as well as the Bahn and it is, more importantly, an indication of a true and deep systemic crisis. Why are citizens voting for these parties for 15 years when they do not agree with the decisions that they have been making?
As of last week Heiner Geißler, an 80-year-old well known mediator and former high-ranking politician, has been trying to negotiate with both the government and its opponents. However, it seems to be a shared feeling that mediation is being used as a tactical means of appeasement and not as a way to achieve honest, open-ended involvement. As many contracts have been awarded already and respective compensations would be very high, people doubt that the government and the Bahn would even consider ending the project.
Comparable projects such as the recent airport extension in Frankfurt have seen far less opposition from citizens. There, citizens were involved from the very beginning in a continuous and open dialogue about their public and individual needs. Early on involvement has set a common ground for mediating conflicts and interest.
Democratic processes seem to have lost some of their legitimising power especially when it comes to issues that interfere directly with people’s daily lives. Parties in Germany are based on membership and milieus, but they face grassroot coalitions that are far beyond traditional structures. It is not ideology, but issues, that bring people together.
Deliberative democracy was an ideal-type concept, which has not challenged representative democracy very much. However, some of its elements, especially with the legitimising force of deliberation and involvement, should become part of the policymakers’ tool boxes. Democracy is a communicative system. James Fishkin, an American political scientist and professor at Stanford University, has suggested a “deliberative polling” process that allows for the repeated interaction between policymakers and citizens. It is not only about signalling citizens’ preference to the politicians but also about making these preferences an issue for discussion.
It is about strategic and long-term involvement of citizens who want to be taken seriously. Democracy is not in crisis. People are as political as they have ever been, but politics should allow for a bigger spectrum of involvement procedures in order not to endanger representative decision-making procedures.
In the case of Stuttgart 21, government officials and the Bahn claim that the whole process gained huge legitimacy as it was discussed in parliaments and committees of all the regions and municipalities involved. Hence, those in favour of the project argued that a process of public deliberation would undermine the powers and competencies of the democratic institutions that decided on the project.
Nevertheless, there is strong evidence for the malfunction of these institutions. The Stuttgart 21 project has been covered by many polls and citizens’ skepticism was evident right from the start. This skepticism has become more and more visible as people no longer trust the political system but gather in the streets of Stuttgart to protest against the tearing down of the old main station.
It is the major task of politicians in Stuttgart and all over Germany to restore the trust of the people. Sure, politicians sometimes have to make unpopular decisions. But they cannot ignore ongoing and massive critical voices among citizens. And that is why the officials involved with Stuttgart 21 must not stick to the milestones they set years ago but seek to establish an honest and open-ended dialogue with all stakeholders.
Andrea Römmele, who teaches Political Science and Communication at the Hertie School of Governance.