There are conversations in which something ruptures. After these encounters, everyone knows that the previous phase of subtle aggression is over and open war has begun. Guido Westerwelle, the head of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) and German foreign minister, had such a conversation on Dec. 2.
The FDP parliamentary floor leaders from seven German states were meeting with Westerwelle at the party's national headquarters in Berlin. Before the meeting, they had coordinated the message they were bringing to the FDP leader, namely that he scares off voters and is pursuing the wrong strategy, and that the party's only option now is radical change -- perhaps even including a change in leadership.
But Westerwelle gave the delegation such short shrift that it hardly managed to deliver its message. Berlin politician Christoph Meyer began the offensive by saying that the party leadership has an image problem that is making it difficult to motivate members to campaign on behalf of the FDP. Westerwelle quickly interrupted Meyer, brusquely telling him that he could rest assured that he, Westerwelle, knew a thing or two about election campaigns.
Hans-Ulrich Rülke, the FDP floor leader in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, told Westerwelle that there is growing anger and frustration within the party, and that it's directed at the leadership. Again, Westerwelle interrupted, saying that he was perfectly aware of the mood in the party -- and that one shouldn't set too much store by moods.
Veit Wolpert, the floor leader in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, said cautiously that voters in his state don't like polarization, a comment Westerwelle was quick to disparage.
People who attended the meeting report that the atmosphere was frosty in Westerwelle's office. The FDP chairman had figured out what the real issue at stake was: his resignation. "The goal of the meeting wasn't exactly a mystery to me," he said, only to point out that he would continue to do what he feels is right for the party.
At the end of the meeting, Rülke told Westerwelle that he had read in the diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks that Westerwelle became aggressive when he felt challenged by political heavyweights. "Now I suppose I can think of myself as a political heavyweight," Rülke said with a smirk. The meeting ended without clear results.
If Westerwelle had hoped that he could intimidate his adversaries with his harsh reaction, he was wrong. The FDP is in turmoil. The latest survey by the polling institute Forsa shows support for the party at just 3 percent, its lowest level since 1996 (see "Poll Barometer" graphic). If national elections were held now, the FDP would not even pass the 5 percent hurdle needed to get seats in the Bundestag.
The party has had enough. It no longer wants its chairman, and the process of ousting Westerwelle is in full swing.
In an interview with SPIEGEL last week, Wolfgang Kubicki, the chairman of the FDP parliamentary group in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, set the signal for what could very well be the last stage in this process, when he compared the condition of his party with the "last days of East Germany." Since then, critical voices have rained down on Westerwelle like a hail of bullets.
Veit Wolpert from Saxony-Anhalt offers a devastating assessment of the Dec. 2 meeting with Westerwelle when he says: "We aren't asking for any support from Berlin. In fact, we would be happy if the damage could be contained."
The Gloves Come Off
A state election is scheduled in Saxony-Anhalt for March 2011, and it's no coincidence that politicians from that state are now pouncing on Westerwelle. There will be a total of seven state parliamentary elections in Germany next year. Until now, FDP politicians were mostly concerned about the party's poor showing in opinion polls. But in 2011, seats in state parliaments and political offices will be at stake -- and now the gloves are beginning to come off.
Westerwelle's current position resembles that of Kurt Beck before he stepped down as national chairman of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 2008. Not too long ago, Westerwelle was still being hailed as a hero, but now he is being blamed for everything. Nowadays there are two realities when it comes to Westerwelle. On the one hand, those in his presence treat him as party leader. But behind his back, many are already discussing his overthrow and what happens after that. In such phases, politicians are like ghosts; it's as if they were leading a political life that has in fact already ended.
There is already someone who can imagine having Westerwelle's life. People call him "Mister X," using the English expression. He has taken it upon himself to challenge Westerwelle at the national party convention in May. His small group of supporters is keeping his name a secret. He is probably not a prominent party member with prospects, but someone who wants to show that, when there is so much resentment, it needs to be vented.
The only question is whether Westerwelle will even still be around in May to seek reelection to the chairmanship. Perhaps he will resign or be driven out first. He has been lucky so far, because there is no one in the party who is universally accepted as a possible successor.
A Tough Week for Westerwelle
Last week must have been a nightmare for Westerwelle. The Kubicki interview appeared on Monday. The interview was mentioned only briefly at a meeting of the party leadership on the same day, the consensus being that Kubicki shouldn't be taken too seriously, and that it would be best if the issue were to quickly disappear.
The floodgates burst open at the meeting of the FDP parliamentary group on Tuesday. Westerwelle was stuck in a traffic jam on his way back from Brussels and could not attend the meeting. Floor leader Birgit Homburger opened the meeting with the usual words, saying that it was time for the FDP to market its successes more effectively. But by this stage, such an appeal seemed almost silly.
Rainer Stinner, a member of parliament, was the first to lose his cool. "If I said something like that to the party's base, they would think I was nuts," he said. "We have to address the substance of Kubicki's criticism. He is basically right, after all."
Heiner Kamp, another member of parliament, held a similar view, saying: "It's funny that we're talking about mini-successes here. The reality looks a little different, though. The base is horrified with us."
Frank Schäffler, a fiscal policy expert, said: "All these trivial little things aren't enough. What we need now is a big bang." The collective outburst lasted more than an hour -- and hardly anyone stood up for Westerwelle.
The Search for a Possible Successor
That evening, 17 members of the "Schaumburg circle," a group of conservative FDP politicians who aren't exactly fans of Westerwelle, met at the German Parliamentary Association in Berlin. Among the attendees were Hermann Otto Solms, who has been an enemy of Westerwelle ever since the party leader failed to make him finance minister, and Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle, who is already being touted in the party as a possible successor to Westerwelle. The members of the Schaumburg group had complained about the situation in the party for months, but they had never attacked Westerwelle directly -- until now.
Party members were particularly incensed over his awkward handling of the scandal surrounding his office manager Helmut Metzner, who -- as the leaked diplomatic cables revealed -- had disclosed internal information about the 2009 coalition negotiations between the FDP and Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats to the US Embassy.
The affair was handled very unprofessionally, said Stefan Ruppert, a member of the state parliament in Hesse. The others agreed. Many in the group felt that Westerwelle should resign immediately, and not just as party chairman but also as foreign minister. The group resolved to send representatives to see Westerwelle to let him know that the mood was not good. The hope was that the information would prompt him to take the necessary action of his own accord.
Westerwelle came under even more pressure the next day, when Herbert Mertin, the FDP's lead candidate in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, where state elections will be held in March 2011, referred to the chairman as a millstone around his neck and suggested that it would be better if he stayed away from the state election campaign.
Mertin's critique coincided with a letter from the state party organization in Baden-Württemberg. "Help the party to recover from its low point and set aside your personal interests and any 'bunker mentality' by announcing, on Epiphany at the latest, that you do not intend to run for the party chairmanship again," the letter reads, referring to the FDP's traditional party conference on Jan. 6 of each year, the Christian feast of Epiphany. It was signed by four prominent members of the state organization.
The letter reflects the mood at all levels within the party. "People already tune out when they hear his name," says Andrea Daum, the chairwoman of the FDP's local association in the town of Gross-Umstadt in Hesse. The state is also set to hold municipal elections in March.
The members of the FDP association in Gross-Umstadt were meeting in a private room at a local Italian restaurant to discuss their strategy for prevailing in the election without being blamed for the party's mistakes at the national level.
"We wrote to Berlin eight months ago and called for Westerwelle's resignation," says Fritz Roth, the secretary of the local FDP chapter. It was clear to them then, he adds, that the party chairman had allowed himself to be short-changed during the 2009 coalition negotiations so that he could become foreign minister. "This would not have happened to someone like Genscher," Roth says sharply, referring to Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a much-respected former FDP leader and German foreign minister.
'That Westerwelle Fellow'
The FDP leader has also lost his following among potential new blood for the party. "When we talk to people, they say, well, we might join your party, but then there's that Westerwelle fellow," says Benjamin Schäfer, chairman of the local branch of the FDP's youth organization. "It can't go on like this."
Jörg-Uwe Hahn, the head of the FDP's chapter in the state of Hesse, feels deprived of the fruits of his labor by the national chairman. Since the FDP's collapse in the polls, Hahn has hardly missed an opportunity to distance himself from Westerwelle. He now meets frequently with two other Hessian liberals, former national party chairman Wolfgang Gerhardt and fiscal policy expert Solms.
They do not intend to attack Westerwelle publicly at the moment. He will "remain a bystander until after Christmas," says Hahn. After that, he adds, he will "see what happens next."
The party congress on Epiphany will be "a good opportunity for the national chairman to launch an initiative that allows the party to recover," says Herbert Mertin, the FDP's floor leader in Rhineland-Palatinate, referring to his appeal to Westerwelle to finally give some serious thought to a change in the leadership.
Leaving the Party
Mertin said last Monday that his state organization has contacted the Berlin party headquarters "again and again" in recent weeks and months, and that FDP supporters have "problems" with Westerwelle's behavior and policies. There had never been a reaction before, he added. Then, in the middle of last week, Mertin decided to publicly characterize Westerwelle as a millstone round his neck in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE. His statement made headlines in the German media.
Ulrike Flach, a member of parliament from the western city of Mülheim an der Ruhr, has observed that particularly "younger men, IT consultant types," have been leaving the party in recent weeks. "These are people who are disappointed by Guido Westerwelle and the campaign promises he hasn't kept," she says.
The "future of the party" will be at stake during the March state parliamentary elections, warns Veit Wolpert, the FDP's lead candidate in Saxony-Anhalt and one of the attendees at the Dec. 2 meeting in Westerwelle's office. According to recent polls, only 5 percent of voters in his state say they intend to vote for the FDP.
Wolpert, an attorney from the Bavarian city of Würzburg, has headed the FDP caucus in the state parliament for many years. He has been traveling around the state for several weeks now, talking to business owners, campaign workers and party officials.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Wolpert was standing in his suit and winter coat in the workshop of a regional bicycle manufacturer. "It's not exactly easy at the moment, huh?" commented the plant manager. Wolpert smiled wanly. He has long been conducting a campaign against his own party -- against the negative headlines from Berlin.
Wolpert quickly scanned the news on his BlackBerry and saw that Kubicki had upped the ante. Wolpert sighed. "No one votes for a divided party." Then he said: "Westerwelle will finally have to deliver on Jan. 6." The base, he added, is extremely frustrated. "My people have had to put up with insults for a year now. It's no fun."
How does the mood within his party affect Westerwelle? He must be aware of the general feeling. After all, he reads the papers, and he hears the criticism and the reports from his loyal supporters.
Someone who saw him several times last week, in a cabinet meeting and in the Bundestag, says he is not as cheerful as usual, and that he seems sensitive and hurt. When he talks about his situation, he sometimes seems lost, but at other times he comes across as combative.
Westerwelle was never popular, even though he craved popularity. His successes were the result of hard work, often in the face of fierce animosity, even within his own ranks. He has survived many crises, and in the end he brought the FDP back into the government in 2009, with a triumphant 14.6 percent of the vote, after 11 years in opposition. Many had not believed him capable of that achievement.
Since then, Westerwelle has treated the opposition to himself as a kind of barometer for how correct his positions are. The fiercer the criticism, the more stubborn he becomes, reasoning that he has always turned out to be right in the end. Although this isn't entirely correct, he is firmly convinced that it is.
Westerwelle has been responsible for various gaffes since the FDP entered government, including a controversial tax reduction for hotel owners, an unfortunate reference to "late Roman decadence" in relation to benefits for the long-term unemployed and repeated calls for further tax cuts, despite the fact that they were not doable financially. And as foreign minister, Westerwelle hasn't made much of an impact on the international stage either. His only success has been securing a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for Germany.
Not an Option
But will he step down? On Thursday evening, the FDP's deputy state governors met with Homburger and Westerwelle, as they always do before sessions of the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat. Westerwelle got right to the point. If anyone wanted to talk about the FDP's situation or about him, he said, they should go ahead and do it. For two hours, the attendees debated the party crisis. In the end, Hessian FDP Chairman Hahn hit the nail on the head when he said that Westerwelle should think long and hard about whether his resignation, of all scenarios, might not be the best alternative. Thanks for the advice, Westerwelle replied. But, he added, resigning wasn't an option for him.
His position is strengthened by the fact that he has been alone at the top until now, and that the FDP has no other strong leaders. Because the FDP focused solely on its chairman for many years, a strategy that was successful when it was in opposition, no other leaders emerged within the party. Only now, as it faces a crisis of leadership, are distinct camps taking shape.
There are three groups in the party. The first group prefers to avoid turmoil during campaign season. It wants to get rid of Westerwelle, but not at any price. For this reason, even some campaigners in Baden-Württemberg, like top candidate Ulrich Goll, are taking a moderate approach, fearing that bringing down Westerwelle could do more harm than good in their election campaigns, and that the party could descend into chaos in the wake of the hectic removal of its chairman.
The second group has no such misgivings, and wants Westerwelle out immediately. They regard the question of who will succeed him as secondary; in their opinion, anyone is better than Westerwelle. The state party organization in Hesse heads up this hostile camp.
The third group still supports Westerwelle. The party chapter in his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia is the most prominent member of this camp. Its new chairman, Daniel Bahr, assured Westerwelle of his support last week. However, the group of Westerwelle supporters is shrinking, and many of them regard Westerwelle's days as party leader to be numbered. This group will only continue to protect him for as long as he cannot be blamed for an election loss.
If Westerwelle falls, there are currently two candidates to succeed him. One of them is Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle. He is currently playing a double game, publicly supporting Westerwelle while privately revealing his long-standing dislike for the man.
Brüderle is the only FDP cabinet minister who has made anything of a mark in his position. He spoke out against a government bailout for carmaker Opel early on and opposed extending subsidies for the coal industry. This was enough to make Brüderle shine in the midst of a weak team.
But his selection as party chairman would signify a return to the old FDP, whose core supporters were people like conservative small business owners. The FDP would not be a party of change under Brüderle, who has never had much in common with its smart young members.
This group would be more likely to support General Secretary Christian Lindner. But he too is hardly the right man to bring down Westerwelle. Westerwelle was the main reason Lindner joined the FDP as a teenager, and he has long emulated his role model. Lindner owes a lot to Westerwelle, which is another reason he shies away from a revolt. Besides, he would be very young for a party chairman. He is only 31 and doesn't feel comfortable handling major responsibilities yet. "He needs to spend a few years traveling around and visiting the local chapters," says one party insider.
Mister X Is Waiting
This lack of an obvious replacement candidate explains why the desire of many party members to see Westerwelle disappear isn't exactly easy to turn into reality. Some of his adversaries have agreed among themselves to increase the pressure between now and the Epiphany party congress. If this doesn't prompt him to resign, and if no one can be found to overthrow him, the party will be stuck with him until the state parliamentary elections in March. If the FDP has a poor showing in Baden-Württemberg or Rhineland-Palatinate, Westerwelle will not be able to survive. Then it will be up to Brüderle or Lindner to take the helm.
And if, contrary to expectations, Westerwelle does survive until the national convention in May, the mysterious "Mister X" will be waiting for him. Several weeks ago, a member of the party's national committee said privately that he would be willing to run against Westerwelle for the chairmanship if no one else did. This person's name is likely to be kept secret until then.
The purpose of the move is to show the party that there are indeed alternatives to Westerwelle -- the party only needs to show a little courage. Mister X, who is in Westerwelle's age group, would campaign on a platform that, in contrast to the current chairman's policies, supports a broader FDP program and a wider notion of liberalism. The group that supports this Mister X has long been troubled by the fact that in recent years the party was reduced to one person and his favorite subject, tax cuts.
The criticism of Westerwelle on the Internet is much more radical. On his personal Facebook page, the user "Guido Westerwelle" felt compelled to remind visitors to observe the "rules of decency and politeness." The tone of postings in recent days, he added, had become "increasingly rude and sometimes disrespectful." He was also quick to point out that the German Criminal Code "also applies to lying and defamatory statements made on the Internet."
MATTHIAS BARTSCH, ANDREA BRANDT, MARKUS FELDENKIRCHEN, SIMONE KAISER, DIRK KURBJUWEIT, RALF NEUKIRCH, JÖRN PETRING, MAXIMILIAN POPP, MERLIND THEILE
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