Photo Gallery: A German Political Party's Bankruptcy

Foto: Federico Gambarini/ dpa

End of the Ride Free Democrats Clear Out Offices

Voted out of parliament in September, Germany's business-friendly Free Democratic Party is in the grips of an existential crisis. It has laid off 500 employees and faces an extremely uncertain future.

Last Thursday, Philipp Rösler had one last official duty to perform as Angela Merkel's vice chancellor: a funeral ceremony. At Villa Hügel in the western city of Essen, political and industry leaders paid their respects to Berthold Beitz, the Krupp steel dynasty patriarch who died eight weeks ago. Rösler, wearing a black suit and a black tie, sat down in the first row and waited in silence for the eulogy to be given by German President Joachim Gauck.

One of Gauck's predecessors, Richard von Weizsäcker, was one of the last to be ushered into the room. Rösler stood up to greet the former president, but the elderly and frail Weizsäcker didn't notice him. Instead of acknowledging Rösler, Weizsäcker took the seat next to him. It was a lonely moment for Rösler, who left the ceremony the minute the last bars of the funeral music had died down.

People close to Rösler say that he feels exasperated and disappointed. Together with parliamentary leader Rainer Brüderle, Rösler bears the primary responsibility for the fact that the Free Democratic Party (FDP) will not be represented in the German parliament , the Bundestag, in the next legislative period -- a first since the establishment of the body. After initially succumbing to a state of shock, the liberals, as they are described in Germany because of their tendency toward laissez-faire policies, now seem to be gradually realizing what the election loss means for them.

500 Jobs Cut

Dramatic scenes are unfolding these days in the houses of parliament in Berlin, where 93 FDP lawmakers and the parliamentary group had their offices until now. About 500 employees are being laid off. At party headquarters around the corner, about one in three jobs could be eliminated. The entire party leadership has announced its intention to step down, although when that will happen isn't clear yet. The party currently lacks the funds to hold a special convention to re-elect its executive bodies.

The FDP's financial situation was already troubled before, but now the party faces the threat of bankruptcy. In keeping with its poor showing in the election, the party's share of government campaign funds is much smaller than it had expected. Contributions have also declined sharply.

In public, the liberals are met with derision, contempt and, in some cases, hatred. Brüderle and Rösler shut down their Facebook pages after they were flooded with insults. The center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), withdrew from their coalition with the FDP without so much as a good-bye. Chancellor Angela Merkel sent Rösler a brief text message.

The party is now pinning its hopes on Christian Lindner, its leader in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, but he too makes a somewhat clueless impression. With their devastating election loss, the FDP, once an important national party and coalition kingmaker for the conservatives, will no longer play an important role in German politics.

A few members of the FDP are comforted by the notion that voters could find themselves missing the party soon -- particularly if the next government moves to raise taxes. Honorary Chairman and former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher is already talking about a "fresh beginning." But what should the FDP's focus be in the future? Lindner and Wolfgang Kubicki, the party's leader in the parliament of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, would like to see the FDP more closely aligned with social issues. Saxony state leader Holger Zastrow, on the other hand, is pushing for an economically liberal course.

The Brutal Side of Politics

But how many people even have the time or interest to commit themselves to a party that hardly performs any political function and is only represented in a few state parliaments? The current top leadership, from Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle to Development Minister Dirk Niebel, will step down. Former rising stars, such as 36-year-old Health Minister Daniel Bahr and current General Secretary Patrick Döring, 41, are already political has-beens.

Many at the FDP feel that their world has come apart at the seams. Some are angry, while others are more likely to break out in tears. Career plans were destroyed and lifetime achievements devalued overnight, exposing the brutal side of the business of politics.

On the day of Beitz funeral, Rösler was asked if he had any plans for the future yet. He shook his head. "I'm happy," said Rösler, "that I won't have to say anything anymore now."

A Disintegrating Party

On the fourth day after the election, the office of Otto Fricke, 47, is already filled with moving boxes. "Like shit," the FDP's parliamentary budget spokesman yells into his mobile phone, in answer to the question of how he feels. It's a frank answer. Otherwise, he's been telling people: Not bad. I'm okay.

Fricke is now operating at two levels. He continues to function at the one level and, at the other, he sometimes offers a glimpse of how he really feels. At the one level, he says things like: "As parliamentary budget spokesman, it is my job to deal with the dissolution of the parliamentary group." And, at the other, he notes more bluntly: "Everything is falling apart at the moment." The first level is the dominant one. It relates to duties and responsibility, things you can cling to.

"If you happen to know of anyone who needs an experienced secretary," Fricke says into his phone. He's dealing with his immediate obligations, to see that his staff is taken care of. Fricke ends the conversation and places the phone on the table in front of him. It's constantly flashing, indicating that he's received yet another text message: expressions of sympathy, job offers, parting words. Fricke pours himself a glass of water and opens a box of chocolates, but he isn't hungry. He's lost a lot of weight since election night.

At least he's found a home for the fish in his office aquarium. The father of an employee has agreed to adopt them.

Fricke serves as a personnel manager of sorts for the FDP's parliamentary group. He has divided his duties into three areas. His first obligation is to take care of the employees in his own office. The parliamentary group is his second concern, while making sure that he gets back on his own feet is his third priority. So far he's been dealing with the first two sets of challenges.

Last Monday, Fricke left a meeting of the parliamentary group early in order to speak at his office staff meeting. Some 120 people, some with tears in their eyes, were there to lament both their own fates and the end of the FDP's tenure in the Bundestag.

Everything has to be cleared out by Oct. 22. Fricke doesn't know yet whether he'll have enough space left after that to complete the rest of the winding-down process. He is currently haggling with the Bundestag administration because it wants to shut down the email addresses of lawmakers and employees after only four weeks.

"It's like a bankruptcy proceeding," says Fricke -- just faster.

The FDP Bankruptcy

FDP Executive Director Jörg Paschedag knows hard times are ahead for him. The FDP is about to lose a source of revenue, now that it will no longer have lawmakers to donate a portion of their pay to the party. And a party that no longer has any power also ceases to be an attractive partner for associations, lobbyists and corporations. BMW is cancelling its donation of the leases of five luxury sedans to the FDP, worth €60,000 ($81,000). Cornelius Boersch, the head of Swiss financial company Mountain Partners and a good friend of Foreign Minister Westerwelle, is sad to see the FDP voted out of office, but he also makes no mention of further donations, preferring to focus on "moral support" from now on. Billionaire August von Finck, who donated a sum in the millions several years ago, no longer wishes to discuss the issue today.

Executive Director Paschedag has already begun cutting costs. He says he cancelled a newspaper subscription last Monday and slashed the office-cleaning budget. The motor pool is next. "We will have to save €1-1.2 million in personnel costs a year," says Paschedag. It's quite possible that the party will have to move out of its current headquarters in Berlin, where the FDP pays about €600,000 in annual rent.

Party conventions will become more modest. "It doesn't always have to be expensive convention centers," says Paschedag. Instead of the current practice of inviting 662 delegates, he adds, the FDP could hold smaller meetings in the future.

The FDP has been spending more money that it takes in. According to 2011 account statements, the party's federal association was burdened by "negative net assets" of €8.6 million. If it were a business, the FDP could very well be in bankruptcy court by now.

Two Ministers Say 'Goodbye'

The panoramic view of Manhattan skyscrapers and the East River shimmering in the east from the windows on the 22nd floor of the Deutsche Haus, Germany's permanent mission to the United Nations in New York, is overwhelming. "I'm impressed every time I come here," says Foreign Minister Westerwelle. He's drinking a cup of tea, hoping it'll improve his hoarse voice.

Westerwelle suffered a punishing defeat at the hands of German voters only 48 hours earlier, but he behaves as if nothing had happened. He has just finished a briefing on the meetings at the UN. There is much to worry about at the moment, including Syria and Iran, and yet there is still a spark of hope, he says. It's the usual Westerwelle rhetoric.

His schedule is full for the coming weeks, and he also wants to pay a last visit to Afghanistan. After that, he says, he will spend four weeks or more on vacation and finally relax a bit. He vaguely mentions offers he has had to do something completely different. He has no financial worries. After spending 17 years in the Bundestag, Westerwelle is in good shape.

'2017 Is the Most Important Milestone'

Dirk Niebel's comedown is worse. The development minister is sitting in the Bundestag cafeteria with a cup of coffee, not quite sure how to describe his feelings. His skin looks pasty, and his eyes are puffy from a lack of sleep. He devoted more energy to the campaign than most others in the FDP, making more than 200 appearances. Now it looks as though he were the biggest loser.

In his civilian life, which is now almost two decades ago, he was a job placement officer. He doesn't want to go back to that. But what else can he do? Niebel was development minister, part of a historic misunderstanding, since the FDP's goal was to eliminate the ministry. He provoked environmentalists with his aggressive behavior and the army cap he was so fond of wearing. More importantly, he made enemies by placing fellow party members in important positions, even when they lacked the necessary qualifications. Niebel took care of his own people, but he may have paid too little attention to himself.

Back to the Boondocks

FDP General Secretary Döring is standing in his office and settling accounts with himself. "It depresses me that I didn't live up to the responsibility I assumed," he says. Now it's time to clear out his office. He certainly doesn't want to take any of his files home with him. He kicks the one moving box in the room into a corner. He points to a wall unit into which he has just shoved a stack of books. He intends to shred it all.

Many in the party feel that Döring is primarily to blame for the election losses, since he was in charge of campaign planning. There is a deep hostility between Döring and designated Chairman Lindner. Döring's career in the FDP is over.

Does he feel that his work in the last few years has been worthwhile? He says he plans to move away from Berlin, and that he won't miss "this square kilometer of lunacy" in which he had his second home in recent years. He plans to return to his former profession. Döring owns part of a pet health insurance company. "I'm lucky. I can go back to my business," he says.

The New Man

Future party leader Lindner is fanning himself with a letter. It's from an FDP member in Cologne. "By refusing to vote for the FDP, my friends and I achieved what we felt was necessary," the letter reads, "namely, a change in the FDP leadership and a return to the liberal values we support."

Lindner has received hundreds of such letters. He clings to the message they convey because it's one of the few hopeful signs he has at the moment. It seems to demonstrate that there is still life in the FDP, and that many see him as its savior. The only problem is that Lindner himself doesn't know yet how to go about saving the party. "I don't have a finished program yet, or a completed plan of action," he says.

Lindner has no illusions about the task in front of him. He has already made his first policy decision. "The FDP will remain a party that represents the interests of the state," he says. As clichéd as they sound, his words have consequences. Lindner will keep the party on a pro-European course, and it will not advocate for a radical, neoliberal approach. "The protest party in the center" that Westerwelle dreamed about years ago isn't part of Lindner's vision.

To continue to generate public interest in the party, Lindner will need to appear on television frequently. But who's going to want to listen to him if he merely preaches moderation on talk shows and still has no idea how to solve the party's problems?

Lindner always looked good compared to those who were above him in the hierarchy. He seems more contemporary than Brüderle, more eloquent than Rösler and not as strained as Westerwelle. Soon he'll be the FDP's leader, which means that there will no longer be anyone in the party to serve as contrast.

He cannot expect a honeymoon period. Even in the party's current predicament, there will still be no lack of FDP members ready to malign the incoming party boss. Some members of the old leadership are already saying that while Lindner may be a good speaker, he has never been interested in organizational issues, which is precisely what's important now.

But the old guard isn't Lindner's problem. Instead, he will have to come to terms with those who want to continue playing a prominent role in the FDP, such as Wolfgang Kubicki. Next to Lindner, the FDP parliamentary leader in Schleswig-Holstein is the only remaining FDP politician with nationwide recognition. But Kubicki became known primarily for publicly blasting the party leadership and saying that he wanted to become deputy chairman.

Frank Schäffler, a senior member of the FDP in Hamburg who almost broke up his party over the euro issue, is also pushing his way into the leadership. "Lindner has to bring the party together," he says. "That means that there also has to be room for my positions." He says he notified the leadership in his district that he plans to run for a spot on the national executive board at the convention in December. "The euro and the federal government's shift away from nuclear power and toward green energy will remain key issues. I believe that I can make a contribution in these areas," says Schäffler.

His fellow party members won't be leaving Lindner much time. Elections for the European Parliament are scheduled for next May, when there will also be three state parliamentary elections in Germany. If things don't improve by then, the detractors will start speaking up. Lindner knows this, but he operates on a different time frame. "In my opinion, the 2017 national election is the most important milestone," he says. "Until then, it's all just intermediate objectives. I don't want to use them as my benchmarks."


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan