Coalition Rifts: FDP Could Scupper Merkel's Chances of Third Term

By Konstantin von Hammerstein, Christoph Hickmann, Peter Müller and Ralf Neukirch

Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted to use the nomination of a new presidential candidate to prepare the ground for a new coalition after the next election in 2013. But her junior coalition partner, the FDP, scuppered her plan. Now, the unthinkable has become possible: A future coalition without Merkel's party.

Horst Seehofer, the head of Bavaria's Christian Social Union, and Germany's presidential candidate Joachim Gauck, banter behind Chancellor Angela Merkel's back. Zoom
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Horst Seehofer, the head of Bavaria's Christian Social Union, and Germany's presidential candidate Joachim Gauck, banter behind Chancellor Angela Merkel's back.

In the last few months, Dr. Philipp Rösler, the chairman of Germany's pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), has often seemed as if he were his own patient, standing there with drooping shoulders, smiling sadly into the cameras and trying to laugh away his poor condition, albeit a little too loudly. Rösler, who is also the country's vice chancellor and economy minister, has looked conspicuously ill at ease of late.

But then, on the Sunday before last, a miracle occurred. The patient regained his health so suddenly that even he could hardly believe it. Since then, Rösler has behaved as if he had injected himself with a combination of his own blood and fresh cells. His shoulders are suddenly straight again, he has regained his self-confidence and even his jokes have improved.

Rösler knows whom he has to thank for his sudden cure: Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds a doctorate in physics, is currently being celebrated as the "Queen of Europe," just as she is feared as a cool power monger who won't hesitate to sweep aside potential rivals when necessary. The chancellor has a reputation for "starting at the end and working backward" when she thinks about issues, and for always being a step ahead of her adversaries.

Unlikely Triumph

But the young FDP leader has dealt a bitter defeat by strong-arming her into backing his choice of candidate for the largely ceremonial office of president, eastern German civil rights activist Joachim Gauck, whom she had rejected for the post in 2010. Rösler couldn't possibly feel anything but satisfied, even if he is trying not to show it. "The FDP is an independent party with independent positions," he says, with great restraint, "and it's perfectly normal to occasionally stress those positions."

How could this happen? How on earth did the ailing FDP and its beleaguered chairman manage to triumph over the chancellor, the very picture of discipline? Merkel's advisors have been at pains to play down her defeat. The chancellor's main goal, they say, has always been to find a presidential candidate who is acceptable to all, which is exactly what she did by backing the choice of Joachim Gauck.

Of course, that's only half the story. Merkel's real intentions are evident in the two names she had kept in the running until the end: Wolfgang Huber and Klaus Töpfer. Huber is a former Protestant bishop who almost gave up his church career in the 1990s to run for a seat in the German parliament, the Bundestag, as a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Töpfer, a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and a former environment minister, makes no secret of his desire to see a coalition between the CDU and the Greens one day.

FDP Sidelined?

In March 1969, when Social Democrat Gustav Heinemann was elected president in a third round of voting in the Federal Assembly, surprisingly with the support of the FDP, an SPD/FDP coalition replaced the grand coalition in power at the time soon afterwards. Since then, the selection of a presidential candidate has been seen as a signal of coalition policy. Heinemann said at the time that his selection was also "part of the transition of power."

For this reason, Rösler and the FDP could not possibly have misunderstood the message Merkel was trying to convey by supporting the Huber and Töpfer nominations. They interpreted the support for the retired bishop as a clear offer to the Social Democrats, and Merkel's support for Töpfer as an offer to the Greens. And the FDP? It apparently no longer played a role in the chancellor's plans. Given the FDP's poor poll results, hardly anyone in the CDU expected the CDU/FDP coalition to survive after the next election.

Merkel has humiliated the FDP repeatedly in recent months, and yet the FDP has done nothing to defend itself. The CDU leader was so confident that she expected no resistance on the question of candidates for the presidency. It was a serious miscalculation.

Her problems have been compounded by Monday's backbench revolt in the parliamentary vote on the second Greek bailout package, and by signs of a rift on euro policy in her cabinet after the interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, said Greece should be encouraged to quit the euro.

The FDP's decision to join the SPD and the Greens in supporting Gauck as the candidate plunged the coalition into a serious crisis. Until now, two axes had held the creaky alliance together: the collaboration of floor leaders Rainer Brüderle (FDP) and Volker Kauder (CDU), and of party chairmen Rösler and Merkel. But on the Sunday before last, the relationship among the four protagonists was shattered. The trust between them has been seriously eroded.

Devastating for Merkel

Another aspect of her defeat is even more devastating for Merkel. Instead of opening up new coalition options for the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), she has achieved the opposite. Suddenly a so-called traffic-light coalition of the FDP, Greens and the center-left Social Democratic Party is conceivable -- a nightmare for the chancellor.

Officials at SPD headquarters in the Willy Brandt building are already celebrating. In recent weeks, it had become clear to Chairman Sigmar Gabriel that his party could end up being the junior partner in another grand coalition after next year's general election. He has already ruled out an alliance with the Left Party, and an SPD-Green majority seems unlikely at the moment.

But then Rösler, of all people, offered the SPD leaders a new option. They aren't about to celebrate the potential alliance too openly, however. Hasty professions of love for the FDP would unsettle the SPD, which has relished treating the small party as an enemy in the last few years. And, of course, the SPD doesn't want to talk up the FDP too much.

Instead Gabriel, in keeping with party policy to date, raged against the FDP on Ash Wednesday: "They shouldn't think that we are forgetting all the other things they've done." In truth, however, Gabriel is deeply relieved to be holding a new card in his hand.

A New Hand of Cards

More conservative members of the SPD, like Hamburg Bundestag member Johannes Kahrs, are even playing the card openly. The FDP is not an attractive coalition partner at the moment, says Kahrs, "but if it manages to stand on its own feet, clears the five-percent threshold once again and backs socially liberal policies and people with socially liberal views, then it'll at least be an option for us."

The Greens, on the other hand, fear that such open wooing may boost the FDP's chances of recovering from its slump in support in time for the general election. The Greens are still deeply suspicious of the FDP. "If Rösler believes he can capitalize on this, he's mistaken" says Greens parliamentary floor leader Renate Künast.

But then party patriarch Joschka Fischer added new fuel to the debate. Writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung last Friday, Fischer predicted that if the FDP makes it into the state parliaments in the states of Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein this year, it will "march in the direction of the traffic light (coalition)."

Officials at FDP headquarters are pleased with the debate. Privately, the party chairman has repeatedly noted how effective the cooperation with Gabriel has been. "It's good that there is a new power option on the table for us," says a member of the FDP leadership.

Tough Stance

And all this has happened because Rösler was looking for a showdown with the chancellor on the afternoon of the Sunday before last. When the two politicians got together for a meeting at 5 p.m., it was clear that one would emerge as the loser. Associates of the two adversaries describe the course of the conversation as follows:

In a teleconference with the FDP leadership, Rösler had obtained a unanimous vote for Gauck. "You have to know what this means," he said. "Anyone who has any objections should state them now." All members of the FDP executive committee agreed with the tough stance Rösler had proposed.

Merkel had also secured the support of her party leadership for her own clear position: against Gauck. Some at CDU headquarters were surprised, because they had received initial indications that the FDP could decide in favor of Gauck. Why did Merkel commit herself to such an extent? Was it because the chancellor was trying not to admit to the world that she had made a mistake with former President Christian Wulff?

Merkel was speechless when she found out that the FDP had decided to oppose her. "Why are you presenting me with a fait accompli?" she shouted at Rösler. "Why have you and your executive committee made this decision? Are you waging a campaign against us?"

Merkel Shouts

Rösler replied that Töpfer was out of the question for the FDP, as was Huber, and that Gauck was a good candidate who is respected across party lines. He argued that this was precisely what Merkel had said she wanted. Rösler sensed that the chancellor hadn't expected him to be so tough. Merkel responded by shouting that she could just as well sack all her FDP cabinet ministers.

But Rösler stood his ground. If the CDU/CSU voted for Töpfer, he said, the FDP would vote with the SPD and the Greens for Gauck. Merkel replied that this would mark the end of the coalition. They agreed to think about a compromise candidate, and yet both Merkel and Rösler knew that there would not be one.

After the confrontation with Rösler, Merkel sat down with the other CDU/CSU negotiators, including interim President Horst Seehofer, CDU/CSU parliamentary group chairman Volker Kauder and CSU parliamentary group chairwoman Gerda Hasselfeldt. The chancellor was visibly upset. Seehofer sat in his chair, looked out the window and said nothing. "What do you think?" Merkel asked him. Seehofer didn't respond. Weren't there more important issues to address than that of the candidate for president? "What do you think?" Merkel repeated. Then Seehofer, who had made up his mind, said: "We'll agree."

It was a great victory for Rösler. He had finally stood up to the chancellor. Until then, the FDP had allowed itself to be humiliated by Merkel again and again. For example, after the loss of the state parliamentary election in North Rhine-Westphalia less than two years ago, she took the subject of tax cuts, an important issue for the FDP, off the table once and for all, saying: "Tax cuts will not be achievable in the foreseeable future."

Small Braced for Retaliation

Merkel also announced Germany's premature phase-out of nuclear energy without consulting with her coalition partners. The FDP experienced its most recent humiliation when the chancellor recently called for the prompt introduction of a tax on financial transactions without having the asked the FDP first.

Now the small party has struck back for the first time, and is waiting nervously for the retaliation. "This cannot happen a second time," CDU/CSU parliamentary group chairman Volker Kauder told confidants. If the FDP believed it had discovered a promising tactic for the coming months, he said, it was mistaken.

Thomas Strobl, the CDU general secretary in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, is already threatening to break up the coalition. And even such a level-headed fiscal policy expert as Norbert Brackmann is outraged, saying: "This must remain a one-off, the way one coalition partner blackmails the other." CSU General Secretary Alexander Dobrindt is appealing to the FDP's sense of reason: "The FDP should sit down in a quiet room for one or two hours and think about whether its behavior was okay."

The conservatives are already looking for ways to vent their anger. CDU strategists have come up with a number of issues on which the CDU/CSU and the SPD could agree -- without the FDP. They include a tax on financial transactions, tax increases for higher-income individuals and measures to store personal phone and Internet data, all pet hates of the FDP.

But even CSU hardliners like Hans-Peter Uhl warn: "If we behave the way the FDP did in the presidential election, we'll soon pass the data storage legislation, and the coalition will be finished."

Imposed Calm

Ronald Pofalla, Merkel's chief of staff, will be playing for time at the upcoming coalition meeting on March 4. Potentially divisive issues will not be even be placed on the agenda. Instead, Pofalla wants the meeting to address issues like the euro and the German government's demographic strategy. The only real contentious issue is likely to be the dispute over private long-term nursing insurance, a subject the FDP has placed on the agenda.

Not everyone likes the imposed calm. "The question of treating one another with respect within the coalition should be on the agenda at the coalition meeting," says Stefan Müller, the CSU parliamentary manager in the Bundestag. "Our voters expect solid political work from us. The FDP's behavior in the presidential nomination was far removed from that."

Officials at the Chancellery now hope that the FDP leader will overdo his role as Merkel's defeater. His appearance at an Ash Wednesday event in the Bavarian town of Dingolfing has given them hope. At the event, the FDP chairman took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and attacked the conservatives.

"Anyone who turns himself into a little sausage shouldn't be surprised if he gets devoured," he said.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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