End of the Ride: Free Democrats Clear Out Offices
Voted out of parliament in September, Germany's business-friendly Free Democratic Party is in the grips of an existential crisis. It has laid off 500 employees and faces an extremely uncertain future.
Last Thursday, Philipp Rösler had one last official duty to perform as Angela Merkel's vice chancellor: a funeral ceremony. At Villa Hügel in the western city of Essen, political and industry leaders paid their respects to Berthold Beitz, the Krupp steel dynasty patriarch who died eight weeks ago. Rösler, wearing a black suit and a black tie, sat down in the first row and waited in silence for the eulogy to be given by German President Joachim Gauck.
One of Gauck's predecessors, Richard von Weizsäcker, was one of the last to be ushered into the room. Rösler stood up to greet the former president, but the elderly and frail Weizsäcker didn't notice him. Instead of acknowledging Rösler, Weizsäcker took the seat next to him. It was a lonely moment for Rösler, who left the ceremony the minute the last bars of the funeral music had died down.
People close to Rösler say that he feels exasperated and disappointed. Together with parliamentary leader Rainer Brüderle, Rösler bears the primary responsibility for the fact that the Free Democratic Party (FDP) will not be represented in the German parliament, the Bundestag, in the next legislative period -- a first since the establishment of the body. After initially succumbing to a state of shock, the liberals, as they are described in Germany because of their tendency toward laissez-faire policies, now seem to be gradually realizing what the election loss means for them.
500 Jobs Cut
Dramatic scenes are unfolding these days in the houses of parliament in Berlin, where 93 FDP lawmakers and the parliamentary group had their offices until now. About 500 employees are being laid off. At party headquarters around the corner, about one in three jobs could be eliminated. The entire party leadership has announced its intention to step down, although when that will happen isn't clear yet. The party currently lacks the funds to hold a special convention to re-elect its executive bodies.
The FDP's financial situation was already troubled before, but now the party faces the threat of bankruptcy. In keeping with its poor showing in the election, the party's share of government campaign funds is much smaller than it had expected. Contributions have also declined sharply.
In public, the liberals are met with derision, contempt and, in some cases, hatred. Brüderle and Rösler shut down their Facebook pages after they were flooded with insults. The center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), withdrew from their coalition with the FDP without so much as a good-bye. Chancellor Angela Merkel sent Rösler a brief text message.
The party is now pinning its hopes on Christian Lindner, its leader in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, but he too makes a somewhat clueless impression. With their devastating election loss, the FDP, once an important national party and coalition kingmaker for the conservatives, will no longer play an important role in German politics.
A few members of the FDP are comforted by the notion that voters could find themselves missing the party soon -- particularly if the next government moves to raise taxes. Honorary Chairman and former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher is already talking about a "fresh beginning." But what should the FDP's focus be in the future? Lindner and Wolfgang Kubicki, the party's leader in the parliament of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, would like to see the FDP more closely aligned with social issues. Saxony state leader Holger Zastrow, on the other hand, is pushing for an economically liberal course.
The Brutal Side of Politics
But how many people even have the time or interest to commit themselves to a party that hardly performs any political function and is only represented in a few state parliaments? The current top leadership, from Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle to Development Minister Dirk Niebel, will step down. Former rising stars, such as 36-year-old Health Minister Daniel Bahr and current General Secretary Patrick Döring, 41, are already political has-beens.
Many at the FDP feel that their world has come apart at the seams. Some are angry, while others are more likely to break out in tears. Career plans were destroyed and lifetime achievements devalued overnight, exposing the brutal side of the business of politics.
On the day of Beitz funeral, Rösler was asked if he had any plans for the future yet. He shook his head. "I'm happy," said Rösler, "that I won't have to say anything anymore now."
A Disintegrating Party
On the fourth day after the election, the office of Otto Fricke, 47, is already filled with moving boxes. "Like shit," the FDP's parliamentary budget spokesman yells into his mobile phone, in answer to the question of how he feels. It's a frank answer. Otherwise, he's been telling people: Not bad. I'm okay.
Fricke is now operating at two levels. He continues to function at the one level and, at the other, he sometimes offers a glimpse of how he really feels. At the one level, he says things like: "As parliamentary budget spokesman, it is my job to deal with the dissolution of the parliamentary group." And, at the other, he notes more bluntly: "Everything is falling apart at the moment." The first level is the dominant one. It relates to duties and responsibility, things you can cling to.
"If you happen to know of anyone who needs an experienced secretary," Fricke says into his phone. He's dealing with his immediate obligations, to see that his staff is taken care of. Fricke ends the conversation and places the phone on the table in front of him. It's constantly flashing, indicating that he's received yet another text message: expressions of sympathy, job offers, parting words. Fricke pours himself a glass of water and opens a box of chocolates, but he isn't hungry. He's lost a lot of weight since election night.
At least he's found a home for the fish in his office aquarium. The father of an employee has agreed to adopt them.
Fricke serves as a personnel manager of sorts for the FDP's parliamentary group. He has divided his duties into three areas. His first obligation is to take care of the employees in his own office. The parliamentary group is his second concern, while making sure that he gets back on his own feet is his third priority. So far he's been dealing with the first two sets of challenges.
Last Monday, Fricke left a meeting of the parliamentary group early in order to speak at his office staff meeting. Some 120 people, some with tears in their eyes, were there to lament both their own fates and the end of the FDP's tenure in the Bundestag.
Everything has to be cleared out by Oct. 22. Fricke doesn't know yet whether he'll have enough space left after that to complete the rest of the winding-down process. He is currently haggling with the Bundestag administration because it wants to shut down the email addresses of lawmakers and employees after only four weeks.
"It's like a bankruptcy proceeding," says Fricke -- just faster.
The FDP Bankruptcy
FDP Executive Director Jörg Paschedag knows hard times are ahead for him. The FDP is about to lose a source of revenue, now that it will no longer have lawmakers to donate a portion of their pay to the party. And a party that no longer has any power also ceases to be an attractive partner for associations, lobbyists and corporations. BMW is cancelling its donation of the leases of five luxury sedans to the FDP, worth 60,000 ($81,000). Cornelius Boersch, the head of Swiss financial company Mountain Partners and a good friend of Foreign Minister Westerwelle, is sad to see the FDP voted out of office, but he also makes no mention of further donations, preferring to focus on "moral support" from now on. Billionaire August von Finck, who donated a sum in the millions several years ago, no longer wishes to discuss the issue today.
Executive Director Paschedag has already begun cutting costs. He says he cancelled a newspaper subscription last Monday and slashed the office-cleaning budget. The motor pool is next. "We will have to save 1-1.2 million in personnel costs a year," says Paschedag. It's quite possible that the party will have to move out of its current headquarters in Berlin, where the FDP pays about 600,000 in annual rent.
Party conventions will become more modest. "It doesn't always have to be expensive convention centers," says Paschedag. Instead of the current practice of inviting 662 delegates, he adds, the FDP could hold smaller meetings in the future.
The FDP has been spending more money that it takes in. According to 2011 account statements, the party's federal association was burdened by "negative net assets" of 8.6 million. If it were a business, the FDP could very well be in bankruptcy court by now.
Two Ministers Say 'Goodbye'
The panoramic view of Manhattan skyscrapers and the East River shimmering in the east from the windows on the 22nd floor of the Deutsche Haus, Germany's permanent mission to the United Nations in New York, is overwhelming. "I'm impressed every time I come here," says Foreign Minister Westerwelle. He's drinking a cup of tea, hoping it'll improve his hoarse voice.
Westerwelle suffered a punishing defeat at the hands of German voters only 48 hours earlier, but he behaves as if nothing had happened. He has just finished a briefing on the meetings at the UN. There is much to worry about at the moment, including Syria and Iran, and yet there is still a spark of hope, he says. It's the usual Westerwelle rhetoric.
His schedule is full for the coming weeks, and he also wants to pay a last visit to Afghanistan. After that, he says, he will spend four weeks or more on vacation and finally relax a bit. He vaguely mentions offers he has had to do something completely different. He has no financial worries. After spending 17 years in the Bundestag, Westerwelle is in good shape.
- Part 1: Free Democrats Clear Out Offices
- Part 2: '2017 Is the Most Important Milestone'
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