'Mini-Putsch' in Ruling Party How The FDP Botched Its New Beginning

Germany's Free Democratic Party has botched its fresh start under Health Minister Philipp Rösler, who has ousted Guido Westerwelle as its leader. Many in the FDP think Westerwelle needs to quit as foreign minister as well, to allow the ailing party to undergo the thorough renewal it so desperately needs.

The new leader of the FDP, Health Minister Philipp Rösler.
Christian Thiel / DER SPIEGEL

The new leader of the FDP, Health Minister Philipp Rösler.


The chancellor did what she always does in such situations -- she pretended it was business as usual. At the beginning of the cabinet meeting last Wednesday morning, held as usual at 9:30 a.m., she said in the casual tone of voice that she reserves for such occasions that "the coalition partner has now made a few changes."

A few changes? A number of ministers exchanged furtive glances. After the disastrous election results in the German states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland Palatinate, Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), has been seriously shaken -- and the man to her right, Guido Westerwelle, has lost his position as party leader.

"Now we will just have to wait and see, because the party conference has to be held first," the chancellor decreed before she proceeded with the day's agenda. During the first cabinet meeting after Westerwelle's dethronement as chairman of the FDP, however, some people in the room noticed that something had changed at the table of power. After the meeting, Merkel motioned to German Health Minister Philipp Rösler, who then sat down to the left of the chancellor -- in the chair normally occupied by the head of the Chancellery -- and the two whispered together with an air of confidentiality. Meanwhile, Westerwelle roamed aimlessly through the cabinet meeting room, as if he didn't seem to fit in anywhere. "We were looking at a has-been, no doubt about it," was how one cabinet member summarized his impression of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

A revolution has taken place in the FDP. It is a gentle revolution -- and a revolution that only affected one political position. After 10 years at the helm of his party, Westerwelle has been pushed aside by Philipp Rösler. He is to be elected at the upcoming the party conference in mid-May in Rostock, and it is only then that he will assume the position of vice chancellor in the cabinet.

Semi-Putsch May Not Suffice

There are serious doubts over whether this semi-putsch will be enough to give Rösler the necessary clout to radically renew the FDP. The party is weighing down the basically capable 38-year-old politician with "a lead vest," wrote Germany's mass circulation newspaper Bild. The FDP's coalition partner, Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), also doubts that this is a powerful fresh start. A great deal of skepticism could be heard during a meeting of regional CDU leaders at the Chancellery last Wednesday afternoon. "Isn't Rösler too weak and nice to be party chairman?" asked one of the CDU state party chairmen. "It would be much easier if the shake-up at the FDP were more comprehensive," added one of Merkel's aides.

The gentle Rösler made his first grand public appearance on Tuesday in an effort to dispel doubts about his leadership credentials. "The vice chancellor determines the course of the FDP in the German government, also in the cabinet," he said in an interview with Germany's ZDF public television network.

That was well put. But there is a catch: What will happen between now and mid-May? Rösler won't be able to sit next to Merkel until May 18 at the earliest. More importantly, how is Rösler supposed to succeed in his new position while Foreign Minister Westerwelle is still clinging to power and already showing signs that he is thinking of creating an entirely new position for himself: the secondary vice chancellor?

Foreign Policy Shortcomings

Why should Westerwelle be allowed to continue as foreign minister in the post-Westerwelle era? That is the question -- and it concerns issues of power and practicalities. There are, in effect, serious doubts as to whether he is more suitable as foreign minister than as party chairman. These doubts are currently being fueled by his handling of the affair surrounding oil deliveries from Iran.

This has to do with two reporters from the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag who were arrested in Iran last October. Westerwelle traveled to Tehran in February and negotiated the release of the two journalists. In return, he had to agree to a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which was a great propaganda coup for Iran.

After the trip, German government officials said that no further concessions had been made to the regime. But that is evidently inaccurate.

In 2010, Iran delivered oil to India. In response to pressure from the US administration, the government in New Delhi decided not to directly transfer any money to Tehran. Instead, the German central bank, the Bundesbank, was tasked with transferring the funds to the Hamburg-based Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank (EIHB). The Indians submitted this request to Germany at the beginning of the year.

The German foreign ministry saw in this as an opportunity to exert pressure on Iran on the issue of the two journalists. The Indian request was examined, but no decision was made.

The oil deal was on the agenda of talks between Ahmadinejad and Westerwelle in Tehran, as confirmed by a diplomatic cable sent by the German Embassy in Iran. According to this document, the Iranian president made it clear that Iran was interested in finalizing the deal. This appeared to be a roundabout way of revealing what could help secure the journalists' release. Westerwelle said that the legality of the financial transfer would be examined.

The assessment, which the foreign ministry delayed until the release of the journalists, revealed immediately thereafter that there were no legal concerns. The German business daily Handelsblatt reported in late March that the foreign ministry had waved through the dubious deal. The only official statement from the foreign ministry was that it had no intention of mentioning the details of the transaction. Ministry officials said that it was "absurd" to assume that there was any connection with the journalists' release.

But the chain of events and the way they were handled suggest that there was a connection: first the talks, then the prisoners' release and the oil deal -- and finally the attempt to keep everything under wraps. In other German ministries that were also involved with the affair there is a general sense of astonishment over the information policies of the foreign ministry. According to officials at other ministries, the foreign ministry should have dealt with the matter openly.

The leaking of the affair is an embarrassment for Westerwelle. For a long time now, the US, Israel and other allies have complained that the EIHB is circumventing sanctions imposed on Iran in the dispute over its nuclear program. But Berlin refuses to place the bank on the sanctions list. Only two weeks ago, Westerwelle's spokesman Andreas Peschke said that there was no basis to block its business activities.

But that is only part of the story. The decision to place a bank on the list is primarily a political one. After the disclosure of the Indian-Iranian deal -- a development which was highly unpleasant for the German government -- Berlin had a change of heart. Suddenly, government sources are saying there is sufficient information to warrant taking steps against the EIHB. This would confirm suspicions that Westerwelle has not done enough to restrict the bank's operations. It doesn't exactly amount to a stringent foreign policy.

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