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Thousands protest over new Stuttgart rail station

BERLIN (Reuters) - Thousands took to the streets of Stuttgart on Friday to demonstrate against building a new train station, a one-issue protest that has become a wider outcry against German politicians in general.

Demonstrators protest in front of the Stuttgart train station August 26, 2010. REUTERS/Alex Domanski

Several thousand people formed a human chain, police said, to march in protest against one of Germany’s biggest-ever building projects -- demolishing Stuttgart’s landmark railway station and building an underground station.

Violence erupted in the southern city this week as thousands have staged daily sit-down strikes trying to stop the 4.1 billion euro ($5 billion) project, which critics say is not needed and a waste of taxpayer money.

“I don’t understand this,” demonstrator Angelika Schroeder said at Friday’s rain-drenched protest. “The windows are broken at my son’s school and rain comes in. There’s no money for new windows and they are boarded up. But billions are wasted here.”

Demonstrators and riot police have scuffled during protests and seven demonstrators were forcibly pulled off the station roof on Thursday by elite police squads. Numbers have grown from a few thousand early in the week to tens of thousands.

A survey published this week in local newspaper Stuttgarter Nachrichten showed 63 percent of the city’s residents were against the project, with just 26 percent in favor.

“The remarkable thing about the Stuttgart protests is that these are ordinary middle-class people and they’re fed up with political decisions being made over their heads,” said Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin’s Free University.

“These aren’t radicals -- it’s people in the middle,” he added. “It should make the main political parties think twice. They always say they want people to stand up and be counted but now they’re standing up and the leaders are turning a deaf ear.”

The increasingly violent protests could have an impact on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. Her Christian Democrats (CDU) have ruled Baden-Wuerttemberg state since 1953 but face an uphill battle to hold power in a March 2011 election -- partly due to disenchantment over the Stuttgart station they back.

“It will turn into a big problem for Merkel if the CDU lose Baden-Wuerttemberg,” Neugebauer said. Polls have shown the opposition center-left Social Democrats and Greens ahead of the CDU and Free Democrats, who also partner Merkel in Berlin.

In 2005, then chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called for snap elections after his SPD lost control of another major state they had held for decades, North Rhine-Westphalia. Schroeder’s SPD-Greens government was ousted four months later.

The daily demonstrations in Stuttgart have attracted widespread media coverage. There have been images of elderly women shouting profanities at riot police behind barricades as construction machines dismantled parts of the brick station.

Demonstrators held signs reading “You’ll pay for this, you fools -- Voters have the final word” and “Liars.”

“The whole process hasn’t been democratic,” Walter Sittler, a leader of the protests, told German radio on Friday. “What we hope to achieve with these protests is that elected leaders will reconsider and stop this project. Most people oppose it.”

City, state and local officials spent 15 years working on the project to turn Stuttgart’s terminus station into an underground through station. They say it will cut down on travel times and open up a vast tract of inner city land to developers.

But critics say the costs, which studies have estimated could rise to 10 billion euros, make the project too expensive and will lead to higher ticket prices. They also warn the tunnel in Stuttgart, which lies in a valley, could flood.

Editing by Louise Ireland