Coalition in Disarray Merkel's Vice Chancellor Throws in the Towel
There were some who thought that Chancellor Angela Merkel should have used the occasion of former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg's resignation a month ago as an excuse for a significant cabinet reshuffle. This time around, with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle's stock falling rapidly in his party, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), a major shake-up is beginning to look unavoidable.
After days of speculation about his future in the party, Westerwelle on Sunday announced that he was withdrawing his name from consideration for the position of party leader ahead of an FDP convention scheduled for May. On Monday, he indicated that he was also giving up his position as Merkel's vice chancellor.
"It is completely clear that the next party head, should he be a member of the cabinet, will also be the vice chancellor," Westerwelle said.
Photo Gallery: The Rise and Fall of Guido Westerwelle
Westerwelle had been under growing pressure to hand over the reins of the FDP leadership, which he held for 10 years, following his party's poor showing in three state elections in March. In both the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt and the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, the FDP fell below the 5 percent hurdle required for representation in state parliament. In Baden-Württemberg, the party's result was halved relative to 2006 elections and it just barely cleared the 5 percent hurdle.
Musical Chairs in the Cabinet
For the moment, it remains unclear who might step in to fill the void. Early speculation has centered on Health Minister Philipp Rösler, who is well liked in the party, and FDP General Secretary Christian Lindner. But senior party members would like to see the leadership change coupled with a cabinet reshuffle as well.
The Health Ministry, said party heavyweight Silvana Koch-Mehrin on public television station ZDF on Monday, is not a good portfolio for the FDP. It is extremely difficult, she said, for the FDP, as junior coalition partner to Merkel's conservatives, to push through the kind of reforms needed in Germany's health care system. "One needs party leaders who can be successful in their areas," she said.
Last week's idea of installing the new party leader as economics minister -- a position currently occupied by FDP member Rainer Brüderle -- would appear to have been jettisoned. Brüderle indicated late last week that he would not willingly give up the position, saying: "If they want to get rid of me, it will be bloody."
Whatever solution the FDP ultimately arrives at, the leadership chaos within Merkel's junior coalition partner is likely to create additional headaches for the chancellor. Her second term as chancellor had already been marked by difficulties and clumsiness when it came to major policy decisions. The seeming uneasiness of the partnership between her conservatives and the FDP was a significant element of the bumbling. But last month's loss of Defense Minister Guttenberg -- at the time, Germany's most popular politician -- due to revelations that he had plagiarized extensive portions of his Ph.D. thesis added to the difficulties. The sudden about-face on nuclear energy in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in Japan has likewise raised eyebrows, particularly among industry leaders.
Looking for a New Partner
Now, however, Merkel's junior coalition partner has gone from ineffective to being in a shambles. Not only have the recent state elections shown that the party has little support among the German electorate, there would appear to be little chance that the FDP will be able to recover substantially prior to the next general elections in 2013. Indeed, were elections held now, the FDP would have trouble clearing the 5 percent hurdle on the national level.
In other words, if Merkel hopes to remain in the Chancellery beyond 2013, she will have to quickly find a new political partner to pair up with. And given Germany's recent tilt to the center-left, that search promises to be a difficult one.
Westerwelle, for his part, hopes to hang on to the Foreign Ministry, and received Koch-Mehrin's blessing on Monday. "He is an excellent foreign minister and is doing really a very good job for Germany in the world," she told ZDF. Still, there are several FDP backbenchers who have questioned whether Westerwelle should remain in Merkel's cabinet at all.
Westerwelle's fall has taken place with almost breath-taking speed. In the autumn of 2009, the FDP received 14.6 percent of the vote in general elections, the party's best-ever nationwide showing. The problems, though, began almost immediately, with Westerwelle insisting on the need for significant tax cuts even as Germany was still dealing with fallout from the financial crisis and resulting recession. Ultimately, Merkel was forced to make a public statement that tax cuts were not a possibility, an embarrassing rebuke for Westerwelle.
'Pulling the Cart out of the Manure'
Furthermore, the FDP was a major impetus last autumn behind the Merkel administration's extension of nuclear reactor lifespans, a policy which was quickly reversed following the problems with the nuclear facility in Fukushima. The FDP -- traditionally a supporter of nuclear energy -- had little choice but to quickly back away from the technology.
Westerwelle also came under attack for Germany's decision to abstain from the United Nations Security Council resolution vote authorizing military force in Libya. His subsequent comments, indicating that Germany could in the future choose its international partners on a case-by-case basis, angered many in Germany and raised questions abroad.
The FDP hopes to make an announcement on who might take over Westerwelle's party leadership post by Monday afternoon. Indications are that the party's younger generation is set to take over. Rösler is 38 years old while Lindner is just 32. But Frank Schäffler, the party's financial expert in German parliament, warned against relying too heavily on the party's rising stars.
Both the older and the younger generation, he told the financial daily Handelsblatt, have to work together "to pull the cart out of the manure."