The World from Berlin: 'The FDP Awakens from Its Coma'

The decision to select Joachim Gauck as the official candidate to become German president on Sunday only happened after a major dispute between Philipp Rösler, the head of the Free Democratic Party, and Chancellor Angela Merkel. Rösler won the battle, but the fallout is expected to be major in the coalition government, German editorialists argue.

Philipp Rösler (left) of the Free Democratic Party challenged Angela Merkel this weekend and pushed through Joachim Gauck as a presidential candidate against her will. Zoom
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Philipp Rösler (left) of the Free Democratic Party challenged Angela Merkel this weekend and pushed through Joachim Gauck as a presidential candidate against her will.

A dramatic weekend of negotiations in Berlin produced a candidate for president supported by most of the country's major parties, but it also left what is likely to be lasting damage in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government between the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Although Merkel knew it would be politically imperative to select a joint candidate together with the opposition, center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, she initially opposed candidate Joachim Gauck, who previously ran as the opposition's man in 2010, until she could no longer hold out.

On Sunday, Merkel reportedly first learned from a press report that her junior coalition partner, the FDP, had voted to support Gauck. This led to an angry meeting between FDP, CDU and CSU party leaders attended by Merkel at the Chancellery. Faced with the choice of risking the collapse of her coalition government in the midst of the euro crisis, though, Merkel ultimately yielded to the FDP.

Early this week, newspapers are filled with articles and commentaries about the anticipated fallout between the Christian Democrats and a junior coalition partner that has proven extremely difficult for them to work with. Some officials within the CDU are calling the FDP's move to pick Gauck "blackmail". Others are hinting there may be some kind of political revenge.

Depending on where they fall on the political scale, editorialists at leading German newspapers on Tuesday universally argue that Rösler's move was as brave as it was calculated, and will possibly even breathe new life into a party that for months now has appeared to be moribund. But many also warn it will further strain a volatile coalition government that has had serious trouble finding its way and just getting along.

The mass-circulation Bild writes:

"It was a masterstroke on the part of a politician whom many had already written off. During a round of power poker over the nation's highest office, of all things, the FDP returned to its old strength. Party boss Rösler became a kingmaker! By doing so, he succeeded in doing something many considered no longer to be possible: The beleaguered FDP chief was able to prevail over the chancellor on one of the most important issues of this legislative period. Rösler remained unwavering, even when Merkel threatened to kick his party out of the government. This steadfastness deserves more than just respect -- it could also be the catalyst for a relaunch of the FDP."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Merkel and Rösler, that's the actual problem here. In all of the now two and a half years that the black (CDU/CSU) and yellow (FDP) coalition has governed together, there was only one moment in which the FDP demonstratively stood up to the chancellor. That was when former Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle refused to offer state money to aid carmaker Opel (when General Motors briefly flirted with selling its ailing subsidiary). At the time, though, the FDP wasn't yet at rock bottom in the polls. Besides, Brüderle is a political professional who knows how to get out of a pickle. Rösler, on the other hand, is an inexperienced party chairman who is fighting for his political life right now. He acts on behalf of the party's secret leader, Wolfgang Kubicki, a candidate in state elections in Schleswig-Holstein in May whose results could also determine Rösler's future."

"Here, too, another legend can be knitted -- namely that Merkel is gifting a success to the FDP in order to make its survival possible, a sort of political mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The truth, though, is that Merkel is clearly the loser. Not because Gauck will become president, but because she was no longer deft enough, no longer creative enough and no longer forward-thinking enough to be able to prevent the conflict. This weekend, Merkel put on sight for everyone to see that she is no longer in control of her own government. That is what damaged her, and that is the price she has to pay for this president."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"In the event that Gauck were to fail -- and this is quite inconceivable given the pre-history -- then, unlike his two predecessors, no one could hold Merkel responsible for this candidate who she didn't really want. He was imposed on her, whatever that means in the case of a woman to whose tune all of Europe currently has to dance. So who was the curly blond warrior in this Niebelungen saga who forced this Brunhild to her knees? It was more the dwarf Mime than a Siegfried: Indeed, one who is also the politically frail leader of a party that has fallen to only 3 percent in the polls and that is fighting for its life. With courage born of desperation -- the Hagens of the FDP are already in the bushes -- Rösler forced the 'yes word' out of Merkel, gritting her teeth. Now the Free Democrats will no longer be able to count on any additional generous survival aid from the CDU chairwoman for the rest of the legislative period."

"But if Merkel had allowed her coalition to collapse over a president who wouldn't disturb her political circles, she would have run the risk of early elections in which the Pirate Party is infesting the domestic waters and a head-on clash with the Social Democrats would have been likely. Those were a few too many uncertainties for the chancellor's power -- and God knows she has other things to manage right now than just the crises within her coalition government. Instead, she preferred to suffer a defeat. But it is also one that she can explain as being more than just bending to the will of other party leaders -- it also appears to have been the will of the people."

The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Since Monday, there has been life again in the desert that the FDP had become. The party succeeded in pushing Gauck through against the will of the chancellor. Party boss Rösler delivered for the first time as its chief. And that is no pipe dream for party supporters who have had to suffer the ridicule of their neighbors, colleagues and friends for backing the FDP in recent months. Despite a threat she would let the government fall, Rösler didn't cave in to Merkel. Very few would have had faith in the party leader and economics minister to be this daring -- perhaps Rösler himself the least of all. At the beginning of the year, his party's own general secretary had dismissed him as a 'wimp' incapable of fighting. But since Sunday night, the shrinking FDP party can breathe a little easier again. It has returned as serious force in Merkel's coalition government."

"But this balm for the FDP's soul will also create problems for the government coalition with Merkel's Christian Democrats, whose motor is already sputtering. The Christian Democrats are peeved, speaking of a major 'breach of trust'. The liberals knew very well that the chancellor wouldn't allow early elections to be held in the midst of the debt crisis. Merkel has bitten the bullet in order to keep Europe from sliding further into crisis. One can't give her enough credit for that. But the future working relationship between the FDP and the Christian Democrats has been poisoned."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"At first glance, this looks pretty bad for Angela Merkel: The chancellor caves to her ailing coalition partner, the FDP. The seemingly invincible Merkel is forced to accept the presidential candidate of a party that only has three percent support in national polls. ... At the moment, the chancellor would appear to be damaged. But that will quickly change. Of course, she won't be able to twist the story so much as to make it seem that it was she who wanted Joachim Gauck in the first place. But she will manage to present herself and Gauck as a duo that will shrewdly lead Germany through tough times. Together. In the end, Gauck will be Merkel's president."

"Even if it might look that way at the moment, the loser here is not the chancellor. The loser is the FDP. Merkel never forgets. From now on, Rösler will have to get used to a very tough stance against him. At some point the bloody tackle will come that will mean the end of his political life. It may be the end of the FDP, too."

-- Daryl Lindsey

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Graphic: The Election of Germany's President



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