FDP Postpones Regicide Party Base Gives Westerwelle a Stay of Execution
At their traditional party conference on the Epiphany, the Free Democrats have given themselves a breather in the dispute over party Chairman Guido Westerwelle. Internal party conflicts have been put on ice for now because the party leader's adversaries lacked the courage to oust him. Westerwelle's fate is now tied to upcoming state elections.
Germany's business-friendly, liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) is in a state of crisis, facing consistently disappointing poll numbers and conducting internal debates over its leadership. But a different reality was in evidence at the party's annual conference in Stuttgart, Germany, on Thursday: the reality of Guido Westerwelle.
The vice-chancellor and foreign minister pulled off a minor miracle at the so-called Three Kings Day conference, which is held each year on the Epiphany. With a single sentence, he directly addressed the FDP's current situation.
He had resolved to look forward, to take stock of the situation, to highlight the successes of the center-right Christian Democratic and FDP coalition government, to say a few words about fundamental issues and to attack his rivals. Westerwelle staunchly adhered to his plan, as he rattled off the coalition's achievements. The core message of the day, he said, is that "we are headed in the right direction, and we have gotten off to a good start."
Westerwelle will continue to spread this message in the coming weeks, in television interviews and campaign appearances. The foreign minister is doing what he still does best, as he goes on the domestic political offensive. It was an average speech that he gave in Stuttgart, given the high expectations leading up to it. Nevertheless, it was enough to garner standing ovations from his audience at inside the city's Staatstheater, where reality wasn't on the agenda. Instead, Westerwelle's goal was to spread a message of hope.
"Those who aspire to lead a country must also be prepared to endure hard times," he said. It was a sentence that could be applied to the position the liberals are in, and to that of its chairman. Westerwelle himself is fighting an uphill battle, hoping that parliamentary elections in the states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in the coming weeks will mark a turnaround for the party.
His remedy for the party's ills is simple: A warning against the collaboration among the parties on the left-hand side of the political spectrum: the Social Democratic Party, the Greens and the Left Party. The 2010 election in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia is being portrayed as a warning sign, and the hope is that it will bring voters back into the liberal fold. "There is no left-leaning majority without the FDP," he said in Stuttgart. In the state, the Social Democrats and Greens formed a minority government in the spring that has the tacit support of the Left Party, which is not part of the government. Judging by the applause for his remarks, he seemed to have stuck a chord with his audience.
A Sigh of Relief in the Westerwelle Camp
After the speech, Westerwelle's supporters breathed a sigh of relief. It was a success, and there were no unpleasant incidents. Things have been sorted out now, at least until the state parliamentary elections in March, says one FDP member. Westerwelle's opponents within the party, the Wolfgang Kubickis from the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, the Rainer Brüderles from Rhineland-Palatinate, were either giving interviews in the weeks before the conference or merely alluding to an uprising. But the rebellion never materialized, giving Westerwelle time to regroup.
He will remain in office, simply because his adversaries failed to take action. Lacking an alternative, the FDP has opted to close ranks for the time being -- at least for the next three months, party members hope. After that, anything could happen in the world of Germany's liberals. Nevertheless, the skepticism remains. Before Christmas Herbert Mertin, a leading candidate from Rhineland-Palatinate, referred to Westerwelle as a "millstone around my neck." In Stuttgart, however, Mertin said that his "wakeup call" had apparently been heard. "Westerwelle gave a good speech. But a good speech doesn't make a summer. Now he has to relate his agenda to the daily concerns of everyone involved in liberal politics. That's the only way we'll emerge from the crisis."
Brüderle, his state chairman, the federal economics minister and Westerwelle's potential successor, remains tight-lipped. He notes that the chairman did not address the FDP's situation directly. "A driver usually does a pretty good job driving when he looks ahead, but not when he turns his head around."
At the Stuttgart conference, General Secretary Christian Lindner had been scheduled to speak before Westerwelle. But then a speech by Hans-Ulrich Rülke, the floor leader in the state parliament, was moved into the slot leading into the chairman's address. As a result, a direct comparison between Lindner, who many see as Westerwelle's successor, and the current party leader was avoided. Lindner deliberately avoided the Westerwelle controversy, although he did point out that there are, of course, disappointments, because expectations were so high, and that party leaders take responsibility for "poor decisions." But that was the extent of his criticism. Clearly the party had opted for a show of unity in Stuttgart.
Westerwelle is playing a risky game, and perhaps he'll even succeed. If the FDP gets off lightly in the spring elections, he could hold onto the leadership position. The top committees will be elected at the FDP's national convention in May, and in the fall the party will elect the new leaders of its parliamentary group in the German parliament, the Bundestag. There is a great deal of quiet and behind-the-scenes discussion going on at the moment. For example, at the traditional FDP ball on the eve before the Three Kings Day conference, members discussed potential alliances among state party organizations to cross-promote their respective candidates. They talked about the future of Birgit Homburger, the somewhat unsuccessful floor leader in the Bundestag. She could end up being a first sacrificial lamb in March, perhaps after being demoted to a cabinet post in Stuttgart, provided the FDP garners enough votes in the Baden-Württemberg election on March 27 to form another coalition with the Christian Democrats there.
Jokes About a Few Hecklers
In Stuttgart, Westerwelle demonstratively embraced them after their speeches. But how durable are such gestures in politics? The liberals sense that the crisis has merely been postponed, because there is still unrest within the party. They paid close attention to Brüderle's appearance and the Baden-Württemberg state party convention on the previous day, when the economics minister spoke out against what he called "whispering liberalism." Party members sensed that his criticism was clearly aimed at Lindner, FDP healthcare expert Daniel Bahr and Health Minister Philipp Rösler. The three young politicians had published an essay in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a conservative national daily, before the conference, a highly symbolic joint effort. Some see it as a challenge to Brüderle and those who seek to restrict the party's scope to economic issues. Despite the relative goodwill that characterized the Stuttgart conference, the conflict between the young guard and Brüderle remained in place.
The most important goal of the conference in Stuttgart on Thursday was to put on a show, one in which everyone plays his assigned role. Even the audience cooperated. Mike Wündsch, an FDP member from the eastern state of Thuringia, said: "It was a motivating speech. In the right direction. The leadership debate is over." Kurt-Georg Pfleiderer, an FDP supporter, said: "I see no alternative to Westerwelle."
But whether Westerwelle will retain the leadership position at the upcoming national party convention, or whether a group of younger politicians takes over, remains to be seen. "As far as I'm concerned, thinking about May 2011 is completely unnecessary," says up-and-coming FDP politician Patrick Döring, whose name has been mentioned as a future national treasurer of the party.
As is the case every year, there were a few hecklers attending the event this year. But even the hecklers didn't seem particularly motivated. It was as if they too were aware that the FDP chairman at the front of the room could very well be fighting his last fight.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan