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A Leader Under Siege: Immediate Threat Waning, But Westerwelle Faces Tough Year

Guido Westerwelle, the head of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, has faced an unprecedented challenge within his party in recent days. His performance at a party conference this week and upcoming, pivotal state elections are likely to determine his political fate.

Guido Westerwelle, the head of Germany's Free Democratic Party, faces a year of reckoning in 2011, with elections in seven German states and a possible challenge to his leadership. Zoom
DPA

Guido Westerwelle, the head of Germany's Free Democratic Party, faces a year of reckoning in 2011, with elections in seven German states and a possible challenge to his leadership.

Only a week ago, it looked as though Guido Westerwelle's days as leader of Germany's business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) were numbered. The German foreign minister, whose party shares power with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats in the federal government, has seen the FDP's fortunes wane massively since they formed their coalition in September 2009.

Recent polls suggest the party might not clear the 5-percent hurdle required to enter parliament if voters were to cast ballots today. Worse yet, a SPIEGEL poll published this week showed that Westerwelle is the least popular major German politician, with a popularity rating of a paltry 22 percent, compared to 61 percent for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Westerwelle has faced withering criticism within his party in recent days, with an increasing number asking whether it isn't time for him to step down after 10 years at the helm. Sometimes accusations have been directed at the "leadership" or "party heads," in an effort to avoid direct confrontation, but it is always clear that the target is Westerwelle.

The FDP is currently in a state of deep crisis. According to the latest survey conducted by pollster Forsa, the party's support stands at just 4 percent, a dramatic decline from the all-time record 14.6 percent it scored in the 2009 election that saw it sweep into government for the first time since 1998.

Westerwelle Alienated from Party Base

The precipitous decline has alienated Westerwelle from his party base and has prompted politicians from all levels of the party to call for his resignation. Indeed, Westerwelle has been responsible for a number of gaffes since his party formed a government with Merkel, including a much-ridiculed tax break for hotel owners, and repeated calls for further tax cuts in the midst of an economic crisis that saw government's coffers shrink. And as foreign minister he hasn't had a significant impact, either -- his primary accomplishment being having secured a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for Germany. His image took a further hit in November with the release of the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables, which showed American diplomats depicting him as a man "offering very few ideas of his own on how to solve international problems" and a "wild card."

Nevertheless, the foreign minister is holding his ground and, in the run up to the party's traditional annual meeting on the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, a number of FDP leaders are expressing their support for Westerwelle's continued leadership.

Indeed, it appears this week that Westerwelle is no longer in immediate danger within his party. All the knife sharpening of recent days appears to have been suspended -- at least for now.

Silvana Koch-Mehrin, an outspoken supporter of the party leader, who is also a member of its national executive committee, said earlier this week that leadership debates in the run-up to pivotal state elections did little to help the party. She said she hoped that an increased focus on policy successes would enable the FDP to rebound. Koch-Mehrin, who is also a vice president of the European Parliament, added she believed Westerwelle would retain his position as party leader. "Guido Westerwelle is the most successful party chairman we have ever had -- he's a great campaigner and a very good strategist," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE over the weekend. "I believe that in the future, as in the past, he will be a major part of the FDP's successes."

Meanwhile, in an editorial in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, a handful of key FDP members -- including national general secretary, Christian Lindner (regarded by many as a possible successor to Westerwelle), Health Minister Philipp Rösler and the head of the state party branch in North Rhine-Westphalia, Daniel Bahr -- argued the internal leadership debates threatened to undermine a needed "renewal process."

'We Have a Chairman ... Who Has the Support'

Westerwelle's deputy chairman, Rainer Brüderle, who is Germany's economics minister, also chimed in with his support for the embattled leader. "Guido Westerwelle has every chance of leading the FDP successfully," he told the business daily Handelsblatt. He called on members of the party to close ranks behind their leader. Brüderle also swept aside speculation that he might succeed Westerwelle as FDP leader. "We have a chairman," he said, "one who has the support of the entire executive committee."

Meanwhile, Holger Zastrow, the FDP head in the eastern state of Saxony, criticized the party's internal tongue-lashing of Westerwelle. "The criticism within the party of Westerwelle is not only wrong, but also improper," he said. Zastrow also rebuked comments made by Wolfgang Kubicki, the FDP's leader in the northern state of the Schleswig-Holstein, who compared the party's current state to the "last days of East Germany" in a SPIEGEL interview in December. "Anyone who knows the German Democratic Republic, knows that this comparison is complete baloney and missing the mark," Zastrow said.

In recent days, a growing number of FDP members have sought to put an end to the debate over Westerwelle in order to restore peace within the party. Michael Theurer, the party's deputy chairman in the state of Baden-Württemburg, for example, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that more team spirit was needed.

Senior party members are calling on Westerwelle to focus on policy during his speech at the national party conference on Thursday. "Westerwelle would be well advised to soberly reflect in a new way on the FDP's direction in times of the financial and euro crisis," Theurer told SPIEGEL ONLINE earlier this week.

Meanwhile, German Justice-Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who is not counted as one of Westerwelle's fans in the party, told the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper this week: "I expect a trenchant speech from Westerwelle in terms of content." She said Westerwelle also needed to make clear what the FDP's policy focus would be now, following its weak start in government. But she also partially defended the party chairman, saying that the poor poll standing had to "do with the total performance of the party" rather than Westerwelle alone.

A Spring of Decision for Westerwelle

Westerwelle's most outspoken critic remains Jörg-Uwe Hahn, who heads the party in the state of Hesse. In an interview over the weekend with a prime-time news program in Germany, he said Westerwelle should not run for re-election as the party's chairman during the next vote in May.

Hahn had ambitions for a top job at the national level after the FDP's strong performance in the 2009 election, but Westerwelle prevented his rise. As soon as the party's support began to decline in opinion polls, Hahn was one of the first to demand that Westerwelle step down. Many say Hahn is thirsty for revenge after Westerwelle put the brakes on his career.

This FDP will also hold a regional party meeting in Stuttgart this week to approve its manifesto for the March 27 election in the state of Baden-Württemberg.

During the last state election in 2006, the party garnered 11.7 percent of votes and it currently governs there with the Christian Democrats, but the latest surveys in the state show the FDP polling at 5 percent or less, meaning it risks losing its seats in the state parliament. Support for the state government has plummeted due in part to large-scale civic protests in Baden-Württemberg against the multibillion-euro "Stuttgart 21" project to rebuild the city's train station, create entire new neighborhoods and build a new high-speed rail line. If the government is voted out, it could further weaken Merkel's coalition government in a year in which her party faces elections in a total of seven states.

The question of whether Westerwelle will remain party chief will depend on two things: how the party fares in state elections in the spring and whether he himself decides to stand for re-election as FDP leader. So far, those close to Westerwelle within the party, say he has no intention of standing down.

dsl -- with wires

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