Letter from Berlin Merkel's Coalition Partner Could Face Setback in Weekend's Elections

They are seen as a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel's leadership. But in two state elections on Sunday, her junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, stand to lose the most. The party is at risk of stumbling below the 5-percent threshhold in both votes. Party head and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle's days of FDP leadership could be numbered.

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Germany's Free Democrats are in search of voters this weekend.
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Germany's Free Democrats are in search of voters this weekend.


Few expect Sunday elections in Rhineland-Palatinate to offer much insight into the political mood in Germany. The state has been firmly in the hands of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) for 20 years -- and despite Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats having polled well in the state in past weeks, recent frustration with the chancellor's leadership makes it seem unlikely that SPD Governor Kurt Beck will lose his job.

Members of one party, however, may be sitting on the edges of their seats as they follow the ballot box results both there and in Baden-Württemberg, which also votes on Sunday: the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). The party is Merkel's junior coalition partner in Berlin and is led by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. And Sunday could determine both his and his party's future. If the FDP does not receive the 5 percent necessary for parliamentary representation in one or both of those states, Westerwelle could soon be demoted.

There is plenty of reason for worry. Since nationwide elections in the autumn of 2009, when the FDP received 14.6 percent of the vote, its best-ever result, the party has experienced the kind of electoral meltdown seldom seen in German politics. In recent months, surveys have found that merely one in 20 German voters is prepared to support the party. The numbers are no better in the two states set to cast their ballots this weekend.

"We know that it is going to be close," the FDP's floor leader in the national parliament, Birgit Homburger, told the tabloid Bild on Friday. Wolfgang Kubicki, FDP leader in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, was blunter. The elections, he told SPIEGEL ONLINE, are "very important for the FDP as a whole, and certainly also for the position of party leader."

With just three days to go before elections on Sunday, surveys show the FDP hovering around 5 percent in both states. Should the party fall short in Baden-Württemberg, it would be the first time since World War II that it wasn't represented in the state's parliament. In Rhineland-Palatinate, a state that is home to a vibrant wine industry and shares a border with France, Luxembourg and Belgium, that has only happened once before -- almost 30 years ago.

Efforts to Avoid Embarrassment

In an election last Sunday in Saxony-Anhalt, the party received a paltry 3.8 percent of the vote, missing out on parliamentary representation there.

The FDP effort to avoid embarrassment hasn't been helped in recent days by global news events. Last Friday, Westerwelle -- in conjunction with Chancellor Merkel -- chose to abstain from a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing military force against forces loyal to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The decision has not been well received by many foreign policy voices in Germany. Even Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, an FDP member of European Parliament, was critical, saying "Germany's vote has weakened the European Union."

But the party has also fared poorly in the wake of Merkel's decision to temporarily shut down seven reactors in Germany following the nuclear disaster in faraway Japan. The FDP has long been in favor of nuclear power, and was a driving force behind the government's decision last autumn to extend the lifespans of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors. This month's sudden reversal has led many to question the credibility of previous government claims that nuclear facilities in Germany were safe.

More toxic, however, were revelations this week that Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle, an FDP member, told a gathering of business leaders on March 15 that the snap decision to back away from nuclear power was motivated by political considerations ahead of this weekend's elections. A protocol from the meeting said that Brüderle "noted that, given the approaching state elections, politicians are under pressure and, as such, decisions are not always rational."

A Screeching Halt

Still, the party's current misery has been months in the making. Voters began fleeing the party not long after the national elections in September 2009 in part because of Merkel's seemingly unsteady course in the face of the euro crisis. More damaging, however, was Westerwelle's insistence on broad tax cuts even as Germany's budget was under extreme pressure stemming from the financial crisis.

Ultimately, Merkel was forced to step in. "Tax cuts will not be possible for the foreseeable future," she finally said last May.

Ironically, Westerwelle had finally seemed to be gaining traction in his foreign minister role recently as he offered his vocal support to protesters across the Arab world as they sought to overthrow their despotic leaders. And he has been energetic in his calls for far-reaching sanctions against the Gadhafi regime.

But Germany's abstention in the Security Council has brought that momentum to a screeching halt. And Sunday's state elections could do the same for Westerwelle's term as leader of the FDP.

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