When Guido Westerwelle, Germany's foreign minister, vice-chancellor and leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), announced on April 3 that he was quitting as party leader and then a day later that he would also resign as vice-chancellor, few Germans shed any tears. Not only is Westerwelle extremely unpopular he's seen by many voters as arrogant and out of touch but he also presided over a dramatic slump in support for the FDP. For the party, Westerwelle's announcement could be the chance it needs to rebuild its image and gain back popularity. But for Chancellor Angela Merkel, it's another knock to her rapidly weakening hold on power.
The crunch came in the March 27 regional elections in the conservative southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, when the FDP saw its share of the vote drop by half while also suffering massive losses in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate which saw it kicked out of the state parliament. It was a huge reversal of fortune for the liberal FDP, which joined Merkel's center-right coalition in 2009 after winning a record 14.6% of the vote in the federal election. Back then, the coalition was heralded as the "dream team." But since then, the FDP has hemorrhaged support. According to a survey commissioned by the Forsa polling institute on Wednesday, the FDP has hit a new low and would now only win 3% of the vote below the 5% threshold to gain a seat in parliament if an election were held today.
"Guido Westerwelle came under growing pressure from within the ranks of the FDP to resign as party leader after the disastrous state election results the FDP faced meltdown," says Manfred Güllner, director of the Forsa polling institute. For Merkel, Westerwelle's departure is another blow to her government which has been battered by internal bickering, criticism over an sudden U-turn on nuclear policy perceived by many voters as opportunistic and her own conservative Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) electoral defeats in state elections.
Addressing party supporters at FDP headquarters in Berlin on April 3, Westerwelle said his decision to quit as party leader after ten years at the helm was "right and it would also ensure a generational change within the FDP." Within 48 hours, Westerwelle's potential successor was stamping his mark on the political stage. Philipp Rösler, the popular 38-year-old health minister and one of the FDP's rising young stars, told reporters in Berlin on Tuesday that he would run for the leadership of the FDP at the next party conference in May, and he also threw his hat in the ring for the post of vice-chancellor. Rösler promised a "fresh start" for the FDP: "The announcement of my candidature can only be the first step to a renewal of the FDP in personnel and content."
Rösler said the FDP may have to ditch the party's tax-cutting image, implicitly acknowledging that the party's focus on tax reduction which was rejected as unaffordable by Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in his quest to reduce the budget deficit was a mistake. And Rösler insisted his party would have to concentrate on winning back voters' trust.
But many analysts doubt Rösler will be able to turn the FDP's fortunes around. "Philipp Rösler is closely associated with Guido Westerwelle who is Germany's most unpopular politician and so long as Westerwelle stays on as foreign minister, the FDP will continue to have a 'loser' image," says Joachim Behnke, professor of political science at the Zeppelin University in the southern town of Friedrichshafen. Most recently, Westerwelle faced a lot of flak for isolating Germany after abstaining on the U.N. vote approving military action in Libya.
While some members of Merkel's CDU party breathed a collective sigh of relief on hearing the news of Westerwelle's departure, party bigwigs claimed his decision to quit wouldn't weaken the government. "It was a brave move," the deputy head of the CDU, Norbert Röttgen, told ARD public television, insisting that Westerwelle's decision to resign as FDP party leader would only strengthen the coalition.
But given the FDP's electoral setbacks, commentators say Westerwelle's exit can't save Merkel from having to make some tough decisions ahead of the federal election in 2013. "Angela Merkel will need another coalition partner in the future," says Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa polling institute, pointing out that many of the FDP's traditional affluent supporters have switched sides to the Green Party, which has captured the center ground in German politics, long held by the liberals.
A skilful, pragmatic operator, Merkel will do her best to gloss over Westerwelle's resignation and will try to work with his successor. But as the FDP struggles to redefine its goals and regain the support of disillusioned voters, it will continue to be the weak link in Merkel's coalition government. And hanging onto her unpopular foreign minister may not just undermine the FDP's image, it may also jeopardize Merkel's own standing among voters.