Senior FDP Official Resigns: Merkel's Coalition Partner Falls Further into Crisis

A senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, threw in the towel on Wednesday. His resignation comes as a result of the party's deep split on how to approach the European debt crisis.

Christian Lindner, general secretary of the Free Democrats, resigned on Wednesday. Zoom
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Christian Lindner, general secretary of the Free Democrats, resigned on Wednesday.

The euro crisis already has plenty of political victims on its conscience. Greek Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou fell over his handling of draconian austerity measures in his country, and his Italian counterpart, Silvio Berlusconi, likewise couldn't stand up to the pressures of sovereign debt. Portugal, Ireland and Spain have also all seen governments collapse due to the problems facing the common currency.

Now it would appear that winds of change have begun blowing in Berlin. On Wednesday morning, Christian Lindner, the general secretary of Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior coalition partners, the business-friendly Free Democrats, announced that he was stepping down from his party office.

"The moment comes when one has to step aside to make a new dynamic possible," he said in a statement.

The move comes at a notably sensitive time for the FDP. The party is key to Merkel's hold on power in Germany, yet it has spent well over a year struggling mightily in public opinion polls. Furthermore, it has made very little headway in putting its stamp on Merkel's policies. Indeed, if elections were held this Sunday, a new poll shows that the FDP would receive a paltry 3 percent of the vote, not enough for parliamentary representation.

What's more, the FDP is deeply divided over its approach to the euro crisis and the permanent bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism. The ESM is set to replace the temporary bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) in 2012, but a significant chunk of the FDP grassroots is adamantly opposed to the ESM and would like to see the FDP reject the plan -- a move which would almost surely result in new elections.

Outraged FDP Members

Indeed, a group centered around the renegade FDP parliamentarian Frank Schäffler recently forced an internal party vote to determine the FDP's future course on questions pertaining to the common currency bailout. Voting ended on Tuesday and results are to be made public on Friday.

It is this vote which most directly led to Lindner's resignation on Wednesday. Both he and party head Philipp Rösler prematurely declared the ballot to have failed over the weekend, saying that turnout had not been high enough. Given that two days of voting remained, outraged FDP members accused the pair of seeking to influence the outcome of the vote. Lindner generated even more criticism for commenting that "Schäffler is like the David Cameron of the FDP," an unflattering reference to the euroskeptic British prime minister.

"The events of the last days and weeks have strengthened my conviction" that a change is needed, Lindner said. "This realization led me to the conclusion, out of respect for my party and my own commitment to what it stands for, to step down."

Thomas Oppermann, a senior member of the opposition center-left Social Democrats in parliament, said on Wednesday that Lindner was "a sacrificial lamb" aimed at keeping Rösler in office "for a few more days."

Not Sufficiently Consulted

It seems unlikely that the departure of Lindner, who served as general secretary for two years, will do much to heal the deep wounds the euro battle has left in the party. Peter Kaiser, a regional FDP leader in Koblenz, told SPIEGEL in early December that many FDP members were considering leaving the party should the anti-euro ballot fail. Others reported widespread support for Schäffler and equally widespread frustration with Rösler's leadership. Many complained that he had not shown enough leadership on the euro issue and had not sufficiently consulted with the party's grassroots.

Even if the ballot fails due to a shortage of votes, the deep split within the party will not quickly disappear. Party leadership has been weak ever since poll numbers began falling soon after the 2009 elections. In April of this year, long-time party leader Guido Westerwelle, who is currently Germany's foreign minister, resigned in favor of Rösler.

Rösler, however, has done little to turn his party's fortunes around and has often struggled to find his voice in the euro crisis. Indeed, the party has often had to reverse course at the last minute to avoid a split with Merkel and her conservatives.

"Rösler is much too reserved and careful," Gerhart Baum, a former German interior minister from the FDP, told SPIEGEL earlier this month. "People simply don't pay attention to him."

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