The following article is from our November 2010 issue.

A political train wreck? The fight over Stuttgart’s main rail station could derail Angela Merkel’s chancellorship – By Heribert Prantl

If the CDU loses the Baden-Württemberg regional elections in March, it might spell the end of the Merkel era. On the other hand, such an outcome might make entirely new governing coalitions possible.

A carved wooden figure of Saint Florian adorns many churches and chapels in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, is often shown holding a small pitcher of water, which he is pouring over the roof of a burning building.

Heiner Geissler, now 80 and secretary general of the CDU during the 1980s, has been given the role of St. Florian. He has been summoned to put out the firestorm of protest that has erupted over a grandiose plan to completely revamp Stuttgart’s main station and with it, the entire downtown area called “Stuttgart 21.” At the same time, the CDU and Chancellor Merkel hope he will be able to ensure that the party retains power in Baden-Württemberg.

For should the party and its current Minister President Stefan Mappus lose the next election in this CDU bastion, Merkel will not remain head of the CDU for long. The party would be alarmed, in turmoil, and would lose its confidence in Merkel.

A core value of conservatives is their desire to maintain cherished traditions – in particular, the tradition of being in power. In this sense Merkel, although otherwise difficult to pinpoint ideologically, has been wonderfully conservative. She has been very successful, thus far, at keeping the CDU, as well as herself, in power. Her politics aren’t flashy but they work.

Yet if electoral success eludes her, the critics who have long accused her of political randomness will pounce. The state elections in March in Baden-Württemberg will be a make-or-break moment. They will determine the fate of a mammoth rail project, the fate of the CDU-led regional government and the fate of Merkel, who has argued forcefully for the Stuttgart 21 project.

The conciliator Geissler is a colorful bird, though one with a conservative’s soul. It’s not hard to imagine him standing alongside the demonstrators in the park next to Stuttgart’s train station, trying to protect the trees slated to be felled. As an acclaimed former CDU general secretary, he enjoys the support of the party and that of Mappus. But as a member of Attac and an outspoken critic of capitalism, Geissler also enjoys the trust of Stuttgart 21’s opponents, above all the Greens.

Geissler is known as a wily strategist, and if anyone can defuse this conflict, then it’s him. But Mappus has entrusted him with an almost impossible mission.

Mappus has nothing more to lose. He and his CDU party are in such bad shape that they stand to gain even if Geissler is able to do little or nothing. They can at least use the mere fact of mediation to refute claims that “the politicians are determined to have their way no matter what.” If Geissler succeeds in calming the protests, it would give Mappus breathing room.

Mediating the future of Stuttgart 21 is akin to squaring the circle. But the future of the CDU in Baden-Württemberg is also in play. Can they recover from this debacle and hold on to power? If Mappus were catapulted into the opposition after the election, it would also spell the political end of Angela Merkel in Berlin.

Assuming Geissler succeeds in lessening the tensions over Stuttgart 21, the CDU’s position could also be eased, which might also improve their relations with the Greens. The conciliation efforts could even come to be regarded as the first step in creating at CDU-Green coalition in the state.

At the national level, that could set the CDU on a new and different course – and the old strategist Geissler could rub his hands in satisfaction. Such pipe dreams must be permitted given the sheer audaciousness of his reconciliation effort.

In the Bundestag, CDU lawmakers are getting nervous. Opinion polls show Merkel’s party continuing to lose support, both nationally and in Baden-Württemberg, where next year’s state poll is being compared with North Rhine-Westphalia in 2005. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called an early general election after the SPD lost the key regional stronghold.

Still, that scenario is very unlikely, not least because the current governing coalition, should it actually wish to sacrifice Merkel, would be in a position to elect a new chancellor with its existing majority. At the moment, the most prominent candidate is Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU. The popularity of the country’s glamorous defense minister is seen as boosting the prospect of a good electoral outcome in 2013.

But that would mean the 38-year old would need to govern until then – and that thought makes even members of the CDU a little queasy. That is why Roland Koch’s name is also being bandied about. Guttenberg has served for only three months as general secretary of the CSU, half a year as economics minister and not even a full year as defense minister. Koch, who has just retired from politics after 11 years as the leader of Hesse, at least has the experience that Guttenberg lacks.

Germany is currently experiencing the decline of the two large centrist parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD. They will recover, of course, but they will not grow as they have in the past. Even if the CDU had a new Konrad Adenauer and the SPD a Willy Brandt to lead them, neither party will garner 40 percent nationally again. The increasing diversity of the political landscape means the large parties will diminish as the small parties grow in strength.

This is no passing phenomenon. The concentration of power in two very big parties is antithetical to the newly awakened political consciousness of the middle classes, as evidenced by the increase in referendums, opposition to grandiose projects like Stuttgart 21 and even the unbridled enthusiasm shown for the anti-Muslim utterances of SPD politician Thilo Sarrazin.

The Greens are popular partly because they are not seen as interested only in gaining power, while at the same time, unlike The Left party, they are regarded as fit to wield it.

The two centrist parties created a party-state following a model taught by Gerhard Leibholz and legally defined by him during his 20 years on the German Constitutional Court (1951-1971). According to him, the popular will, which is the foundation of state authority and which is articulated in elections and votes, “can, in the reality of the modern party-state, only be articulated through the parties, which serve as the political actors.”

This has led to a situation in which the difference between state and party has become ever more blurred in the Federal Republic of Germany – to the point where governmental decisions are shifted into party or coalition committees, and where the big parties grab hold of the state’s administrative posts and the concomitant privileges. Voters increasingly resent this, and the diminution of these once large parties is their means of offering resistance.

So Germany is now experiencing something new: the return to, and transformation of, the existing party-state into a more lively party-based democracy. The dwindling of the power of the SPD, CDU and CSU is part of this rejuvenation.