By SPIEGEL Staff
Germany's Free Democrats on Tuesday anointed Philipp Rösler, the Vietnamese-born health minister, as their new leader to replace Guido Westerwelle, who resigned on Sunday following regional election defeats that have plunged the party into crisis and shaken Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition.
The FDP's executive board agreed that Rösler, 38, should stand for the chairmanship at a party conference in May. He is expected to remain health minister, a job in which he has had only modest success since taking it on as the youngest minister in Merkel's cabinet in 2009.
Rösler was born in a southern Vietnamese village in 1973 during the war, and was adopted by a family in Germany at the age of nine months. He joined the pro-business FDP while he was still a teenager in 1992. He studied medicine in Hanover and Hamburg before becoming a medical doctor in 2002.
Rösler is affable and eloquent and less confrontational than Westerwelle, who is famous for his outbursts of combative rhetoric. He has shown an interest in immigration issues and could herald a shift to a softer, more social FDP, if the stridently pro-business party lets him.
His easygoing nature and sense of humor have made him popular in the FDP and in the ranks of government, although he was reported to have irritated Merkel by telling a joke about her last year. During a light-hearted speech in a beer tent at a Bavarian folk festival last September, he quipped that there was a new Barbie doll version of the chancellor, priced at 300. "The doll only costs 20. But the 40 pant-suits are really expensive," he said, earning laughs from the crowd.
Tough Tasks Ahead
The demands on the mild-mannered Rösler are huge, and there are doubts whether he is resolute and thick-skinned enough for the job. He will have to reverse the slide in the FDP's popularity, mend deep rifts in the party, revamp its identity and policy program and hold his own against Germany's two most cunning political operators -- Merkel and Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.
Westerwelle led the FDP to its best-ever general election results in September 2009 when it scored 14.6 percent of the vote, enabling the party to enter government as junior partner to Merkel's conservatives. But he has also been blamed for the party's poor performance since then, and for its dramatic slide in opinion polls, culminating in disastrous losses in three major state elections -- in Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate -- last month.
Under Westerwelle, the FDP came to be seen as a party predominantly focused on getting tax breaks for its core clientele of well-off professionals.
Rösler's own record as health minister hasn't been exactly impressive either. He failed to push through his ambitious plans for reforming German healthcare which were whittled down by Seehofer and by Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who remarked sarcastically that the reform would work fine if the top tax rate were hiked to 73 percent.
"Why did he have to say such an unfriendly thing?" Rösler told an aide at the time, referring to Schäuble's comment. He had allowed himself to be intimidated -- that doesn't bode well for his ability to cope with the challenges ahead. The notoriously difficult health portfolio could sap Rösler's authority as party leader.
The FDP's leadership would have preferred him to become economy minister, a less demanding and more high-profile portfolio, but the present incumbent, Rainer Brüderle, likewise of the FDP, refused to budge.
Rösler may be a high-flier, but he hasn't been one to grasp for power. When he was offered the job as health minister in 2009, he was initially reluctant to take it because he wanted to help take care of his newborn twin daughters. He still hasn't properly moved to Berlin and commutes to and from his home in Hanover. When in the capital, he sleeps in a room at the back of his ministry.
Rösler has repeatedly said he wants to quit politics when he turns 45. "I don't want to be consumed by politics. One has to ride the tiger rather than let him eat you," he said.
Those aren't the words of someone obsessed with advancement. But his career has nevertheless been meteoric. He was 27 years old when he became the FDP's general secretary for the state of Lower Saxony in 2000. He joined the FDP's national executive in 2005 and became FDP leader in the state in 2006. In early 2009, he was appointed Lower Saxony's economics minister and deputy governor.
Rösler says he didn't suffer any discrimination as a result of his different background as he was growing up. But people who know him say his awareness that he was different may have rendered him reticent and eager to please. Friends say that may help explain why he has always been seen as extremely polite and friendly.
He will need to prove his leadership credentials in the weeks to come. "We've got to regain credibility and that will take time, but we will succeed if we're united and work together in a strong team," Rösler told reporters on Tuesday after his party nudged him to take the job.
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