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Success at Last for FDP: Merkel's Ailing Partner Dodges Crisis For Now

The FDP ended its series of humiliating election defeats by scoring a respectable 8.2 percent in the Schleswig-Holstein state election on Sunday. The result should help stabilize Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition at a time when she has her hands full tackling a Europe-wide rebellion against her austerity policies.

Wolfgang Kubicki, FDP leader in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Zoom
DPA

Wolfgang Kubicki, FDP leader in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.

The ailing pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) has won a respite after its better-than-expected showing of 8.2 percent in Sunday's regional election in Schleswig-Holstein on Monday, which ended a run of disastrous results for the junior coalition partner of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The outcome has given the party a lift ahead of the much more important election in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state with 18 million inhabitants, on Sunday, May 13.

The FDP has been in the doldrums for over year, with voter support falling below the 5 percent threshold needed for parliamentary representation. It failed to clear the hurdle in several regional elections last year and this, at times with such paltry showings that some even began to doubt whether the party had a future.

The FDP has been paying the price for its perceived poor record in Merkel's government, where it has failed to push through its tax-cutting agenda. It has also been widely criticized for focusing too heavily on the interests of its well-heeled clientele.

The votes in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia have been billed as crucial to the survival of the small party, which punched above its weight for decades as traditional kingmaker in German politics. Over the years, its role has been diminished by the emergence of other parties such as the Greens, the Left Party and the increasingly popular Pirate Party, which received an impressive 8.2 percent of the vote on Sunday.

Speculation That Leader May be Ousted

Philipp Rösler, who took over as FDP leader a year ago, has so far failed to boost the FDP's standing in nationwide opinion polls, and SPIEGEL has learned that leading members have lost faith in his ability to reinvigorate the party.

One member of the FDP's leadership told SPIEGEL that Rösler must be replaced by the end of the year, in time for the 2013 general election -- even if the FDP is successful in next Sunday's election in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The FDP's result in Schleswig-Holstein has been attributed mainly to the strong personal appeal of its leading candidate in the state, Wolfgang Kubicki, 60, a charismatic, outspoken maverick with a common touch. In North Rhine-Westphalia, too, the plaudits for a strong FDP showing likely wouldn't go to Rösler, but to Christian Lindner, the FDP's regional leader there.

Top FDP members were at pains on Monday to quell speculation that Rösler might be toppled. Rainer Brüderle, the parliamentary floor leader of the FDP, told German television: "There are no discussions about personnel on the agenda. The question doesn't arise at all."

Boost Seen Shortlived

Political analysts don't believe that strong results in the two state elections will herald a lasting upturn in the FDP's fortunes. "The FDP won in Schleswig-Holstein due its top candidate Wolfgang Kubicki," said Oskar Niedermeyer, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin.

If anything, Rösler's position has been weakened by the vote because it sidelines him. "Party chairman Philipp Rösler won't see this result with unbridled joy," Jürgen Falter, political analyst at Mainz University, told Passauer Neue Presse newspaper. "It will immediately prompt the question of whether the FDP needs a similarly colorful leader (as Kubicki) at the national level."

Nevertheless, the Schleswig-Holstein election should come as some relief to Merkel because it will help to at least temporarily stabilize her coalition partner and keep a lid on rumblings in her government that she can ill afford at the moment, with elections in France and Greece reflecting mounting opposition across Europe to her austerity-led plan to save the euro.

She and her party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, remain strong in opinion polls because she is seen as a safe pair of hands in the euro crisis. But the FDP's weakness has cast doubt on her ability to win a third term in the 2013 election, because she would need to find an alternative coalition partner to stay in government.

Some analysts are predicting she may try to form an alliance with the center-left Social Democrats as junior partner, in a repeat of the coalition she headed between 2005 and 2009.

cro -- with wire reports

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
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