Merkel's Coalition Partners Unravel: Confidence Wanes in FDP Leader Rösler

By Ralf Neukirch and Merlind Theile

Despite efforts to breathe new life into their faltering message, Free Democratic Party leader Philipp Rösler could be forced to step down soon. Should he fall, Chancellor Merkel could lose much more than a key political partner. Her entire cabinet could face a significant reshuffle.

Philipp Rösler at the Epiphany conference in the southern German city of Stuttgart. Zoom
Christian Thiel/ DER SPIEGEL

Philipp Rösler at the Epiphany conference in the southern German city of Stuttgart.

The star was late. Philipp Rösler, the leader of Germany's business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), and his general secretary Patrick Döring stood last Friday in the foyer of Stuttgart's state theater and waited -- one minute, two minutes -- but the carol singers failed to arrive. The performer bearing the star was missing.

Rösler and Döring eventually gave up. After all, party members were waiting for the two men to give their speeches at the annual Epiphany conference. But as the two men quickly headed for the stage, the carol singers finally arrived. Rösler and Döring stopped awkwardly in their tracks, as though the carolers had caught them trying to flee.

FDP leaders intended to send a message of political renewal from Stuttgart, but instead they failed to stage even the simplest performance. The FDP, the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing center-right coalition, is sliding ever deeper into crisis. And there's no one in sight who can turn things around -- least of all party chairman Rösler.

In a recent opinion poll conducted by broadcaster ARD, the FDP slipped to an approval rating of two percent. It was their worst result ever, and a direct consequence of a string of political gaffes in recent months in which the party leadership has demonstrated its inability to govern.

On the Thursday before the Epiphany conference, new general secretary Döring revealed his low opinion of the party leader when he told the German news magazine Stern that Rösler was "not a fighter" but rather a "mediator." On top of that, even while Rösler was giving his speech in Stuttgart on Friday, news broke of the collapse of the three-party coalition in the state of Saarland, consisting of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the FDP and the environmentalist Green Party. CDU governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer blamed "ongoing wrangling" within the ranks of Saarland's FDP for the coalition's failure. This development effectively overshadowed Rösler's speech, which was actually intended to be the political highlight of the day.

Pushing Growth

It doesn't look like anything can stop the FDP from unraveling. Hardly any of its members believe that Rösler can put the party back on course. One month ago, the word within the party was that Rösler would be able to maintain his position as party chairman at least until the May state parliamentary elections in Schleswig-Holstein. Now, party insiders are no longer ruling out the possibility that he may have to step down even earlier.

Rösler spent an hour in Stuttgart outlining his vision of how the FDP could be saved. He's relying primarily on one notion: growth. The FDP's flagship issue has long been tax cuts. Rösler's idea is to replace this with the concept of growth -- a political buzzword to forge a new identity.

Rösler presented his party as the only growth-friendly political force in Germany and the last bastion of the market economy. He has abandoned his original goal of taking on board new issues to broaden the FDP's profile. In the party's fight for survival only the core clientele of the FDP now counts: small and medium-sized companies, tradesmen and dentists. It's hoped that supporters from this milieu will help the FDP to at least clear the five-percent hurdle during the next elections to the German parliament, the Bundestag, in 2013. The way things have been going, though, no one among the party leadership dares to dream of much more than that.

The new strategy is a return to the FDP's traditional political niche. Following long discussions with academics and intellectual luminaries, former General Secretary Christian Lindner wanted to present a program this spring that would allow the FDP to emerge from its corner as the tax-cutting party. His successor Döring immediately scuttled Lindner's plan.

In an internal memo to the members of a newly created editorial group, Döring wrote shortly before Christmas that he intended to drop the current draft of the political platform and create "a more compact proposal along the lines of a manifesto." He said the focus would be on economic issues. Döring has never made a secret of the fact that he thinks the concept of "compassionate liberalism" -- as championed by Lindner -- is pure nonsense.

Allies Lose Confidence

Perhaps returning to the FDP's key demands is the only way to help the pro-business party clear the five-percent hurdle during the next Bundestag elections next autumn. One and a half years is a long time in politics. It's possible that the party's core voters can be remobilized by then.

But this is unlikely to help Rösler. His political lifespan is now probably measured in weeks, not years. It's hard to imagine that his growth offensive will stabilize the party in the brief period between now and the state parliamentary elections in May.

To make matters worse, even Rösler's closest allies no longer have confidence in his ability to stabilize the party. Lindner's resignation as FDP general secretary the week before Christmas was a vote of no-confidence against the party chairman. Although Lindner refrained from making public comments, internally he made it clear that he thinks Rösler's approach is wrong.

His successor Döring has been less circumspect. He characterized Rösler in words that are normally only heard from the FDP leader's harshest critics. Rösler is thin-skinned, said Döring. He contended that Rösler may be a better minister than a party chairman.

In Döring's words, Rösler appears to be a man who is too soft for the hard conflicts and decisions of the world of politics. Döring describes him as a profoundly suspicious person who wonders, for instance, why FDP parliamentary floor leader Rainer Brüderle gave an interview to the German business daily Handelsblatt shortly after he did -- and counts which of them was given more column space. In short, Döring sees him as someone unsuitable to be party chairman.

Now everyone knows what the FDP's own general secretary thinks of Rösler. This further weakens the embattled party chairman.

Leading members of the FDP think it's possible that Rösler may resign before the state parliamentary elections. If the party's popularity ratings remain dismal, Schleswig-Holstein parliamentary floor leader Wolfgang Kubicki is likely to instigate a revolt against Rösler no later than March -- and he would have excellent chances of succeeding. A national party conference will be held in Karlsruhe in April, and this is where the change in power could be sealed.

Westerwelle Also At Risk

If Rösler were toppled, it's widely believed that Brüderle would become the new party chairman. He's earned respect -- even from his critics -- as the FDP parliamentary floor leader in the Bundestag. At the Epiphany conference, delegates applauded him much more thunderously than they did Rösler. Brüderle says that he has no ambition of becoming party chairman. His aides also say that he has no intention of replacing Rösler. But it makes no difference. If the FDP needs a new party leader, Brüderle can hardly avoid taking the position.

It's unclear, though, whether he would remain the parliamentary floor leader in the Bundestag. He would prefer this solution, but there are a number of other candidates for the position. Development Minister Dirk Niebel, whose influence within the party is growing, would be an option. And Health Minister Daniel Bahr, the head of the influential FDP party chapter in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, would also like the job.

Brüderle and Bahr reportedly dislike each other, but they'll have to put their differences aside for a successful change in party leadership. A close adviser to Bahr says that the health minister would have to become the vice chancellor, the other position currently held by Rösler, if Brüderle were to remain parliamentary floor leader. It's also conceivable that Bahr would receive a different cabinet position. If there were a reshuffle at the top of the party, two chairs would be vacated in the cabinet: Rösler, as everyone agrees, would have to step down from his position as economy minister if he lost the FDP chairmanship.

Another individual would have to step down. High-level FDP members agree that along with Rösler another member of the government would have to leave office -- the man that the young FDP chairman didn't dare unseat a few months ago: German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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