STUTTGART, Germany (Reuters) - Protests over a new high-tech rail project in a hub of German industry have pitted the ruling elite against an unlikely coalition of engineers, punks and even a masked woman with deer antlers on her head.
The demonstrators in central Stuttgart against a plan to redevelop the city's train station have become a common sight in a local campaign that has swelled into a broad protest movement threatening to engulf Chancellor Angela Merkel's government.
Since demolition work on parts of the 80-year-old station began this summer, tens of thousands have turned out week upon week to vent their frustration about the project, energizing the Baden-Wuerttemberg state capital and dominating news coverage.
Known as "Stuttgart 21," the 4.1-billion-euro ($5.8 billion) plan has divided the carmaking center, home to Porsche and Daimler, becoming a symbol of corruption, environmental decline and lack of political accountability to opponents, and a vision of progress and technological prowess to its supporters.
Violent stand-offs have turned it into a referendum on the ruling class and hit support for Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) ahead of an election next March in the wealthy southern state that her conservative party has governed nearly 60 years.
"The CDU is going down," said Fritz Bender, a 66-year-old retired engineer and one-time CDU voter, who, along with many other demonstrators, plans to vote for the Greens.
Smiling broadly at one of the regular rallies by protesters, who are seen by some as left-wing counterparts to the American conservative Tea Party movement, Bender said the passion that the cause has inspired made him proud to be from Stuttgart.
"Something wonderful is happening here," he said.
Among the thousands at the good-natured event, there is talk of collusion between politicians and big business, and calling Berlin to account. Some, like the woman in the antlers, point the plan's environmental impact. Others wave banners condemning Merkel's plan to extend the lives of nuclear power plants.
Latest surveys in Baden-Wuerttemberg, a state of nearly 11 million inhabitants with an economy the size of Poland's, show the Greens are backed by nearly one in three voters -- just behind the CDU, but enough to form a new center-left coalition.
It would be a watershed in German politics if the environmentalist Greens could, for the first time, gain control of a state, especially one better known for industrial giants.
Political analysts say a loss in Baden-Wuerttemberg could spark a direct challenge to Merkel from within the CDU.
Lining up behind the Greens are a patchwork of disaffected voters from all walks of life united by the belief the planned subterranean station project is unnecessary, too expensive and was planned without sufficient public consultation.
The city plans to convert the 1920s complex into an underground through station from a terminus as part of plans to turn Stuttgart into a major rail hub in the area. However, the monumental grey stone main building will be retained.
"There's no money for education, but they're prepared to spend it on this," said Iris Goldschmid, 45, who said she would also turn her back on the CDU to vote Green. "We have no choice, we need to make a statement. They must include the public more."
Many locals object to plans to cut down dozens of trees in a park beside the station, and say tunneling needed will endanger the mineral water springs that are a hallmark of the city.
"I'm grateful for Stuttgart 21 because it's bringing people together," said Gabrielea Faerber, one of about a dozen protesters sitting round a campfire chanting for the trees, some of which are occupied by squatters. "People are waking up."
Festooned with bulbs that light up the park at night, trees marked for felling are garlanded with ribbons and decked out with peace symbols like the image of Mahatma Gandhi. One trunk was totally smothered in the protective hug of teddy bears.
Polls in Stuttgart show a majority of locals oppose redevelopment of the station, which all the parties in the state parliament save the Greens formally back. However, a recent state-wide poll showed slightly more voters favor the plan.
Nearly everyone in the 600,000-strong metropolis that lies on either side of the Neckar valley holds an opinion on the matter. Views have become increasingly entrenched following a bloody confrontation with police last month that injured dozens.
The Greens are demanding an immediate halt to Stuttgart 21, but the CDU-led state government says to stop work would cost millions and could lead to a flood of compensation claims.
Though the project was signed off at federal and state level, opponents say details were hushed up and that costs have since exploded. To broker a deal, state premier Stefan Mappus has appointed a maverick left-leaning CDU veteran to mediate.
Local analysts are skeptical any agreement will be possible.
"What we're seeing is an incredible polarization, I wouldn't have thought it possible," said Oscar Gabriel, a political scientist at the University of Stuttgart. "The debate is not being conducted rationally, and this goes for both sides."
Stuttgart 21 has become a proxy for the hopes and dreams of many Germans struggling to come to terms with an increasingly atomized world, he said. But though the protestors were right to be critical, they were also testing the system, he added.
"They don't have any democratic legitimacy," Gabriel said. "Who can guarantee us that a right-wing movement won't have the same level of success? That's what worries me."
But some Stuttgart locals with no say in the outcome of the March election offer a dispassionate view of the controversy.
Athanasios Demos, a 44-year-old of Greek origin who does not have a vote, said he had sympathy for the protesters.
"It's good the people are going out to take a stand against politicians," Demos said. "But one needs to think of the future too, and I think we're better off with the new station."
(Editing by Michael Roddy)