Westerwelle and the FDP: Unloved yet irreplaceable

Westerwelle and the FDP: Unloved yet irreplaceable
Photo: DPA
It's understandable that some of the Free Democratic Party's (FDP) rank-and-file want to replace their beleaguered leader Guido Westerwelle. But a putsch ahead of next year's state elections would only be counterproductive. An analysis by ZEIT ONLINE’s Michael Schlieben.

The FDP is a notoriously fickle club. Apart from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) during its past crisis-plagued decade, no other German political party burns through leaders at such an alarming rate.

This is in part down to the fact that FDP supporters traditionally do not see themselves as loyal party soldiers, but as free, enlightened individualists. Their brand of political liberalism is suspicious of old-fashioned collective organizations and disciplined activism.

For a long time, Germany’s two biggest parties – the SPD and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – were well-grounded in certain firm ideological doctrines that could be relied upon to ensure unity. But the FDP has always considered itself a genuinely pragmatic outfit that never had a bedrock of tradition and tribal pride to fall back on. This means the FDP’s success can only be measured by vote percentages and participation in government.

So it’s no wonder that Fee Democrats in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein are currently warming themselves in this bitter winter of party discontent with thoughts of deposing FDP chairman Guido Westerwelle. Previous leaders Franz Blücher, Erich Mende and Klaus Kinkel were all once mobbed out of office in a similar fashion.

Westerwelle’s responsibility

After all, doesn’t Westerwelle carry the greatest responsibility for the FDP’s current decline? Aren’t critics like Wolfgang Kubicki, FDP leader in Schleswig-Holstein and Jörg-Uwe Hahn, his counterpart in Hesse, simply telling the truth when they accuse of Westerwelle of not having a single success to show for his 14 months in office as foreign minister and vice chancellor?

Hasn’t he completely failed to deliver those goals – tax cuts and slashing bureaucracy – that he championed so vocally in opposition? Did he not appoint his own party’s general secretary as the new development minister, even though Dirk Niebel actually wanted to scrap that ministry? Did he not employ a mole for the US embassy in Berlin as his chief of staff?

One could add go on at length here. One could continue listing Westerwelle’s mistakes and failures. And so it would certainly not be wrong to lay the bulk of the blame for the FDP’s poll decline – from 15 percent to three percent – at Westerwelle’s feet. Never before has a German foreign minister been so unpopular, and never before has a party leader squandered so much political capital so quickly.

But one must counter the likes of Hahn, Kubicki and the others with this question: What would the FDP gain by the immediate removal of Westerwelle? Little or nothing.

After all, a putsch only works if you have a successor with a majority behind them. Rudolf Scharping, SPD leader in the mid-90s, could only be toppled because Oskar Lafontaine was already champing at the bit on the sidelines. Former FDP leader Wolfgang Gerhard would have stayed in his seat longer if a certain impatient general secretary named Guido Westerwelle hadn’t been sawing at its legs.

No rival in sight

There is no such great champion of hope in sight now. The candidate most often named by the media, Economy Minister Rainer Brüderle, is 16 years older than Westerwelle. Not too long ago, he was being publicly and internally ridiculed as a dinosaur. If he were to replace Westerwelle, it would only be a matter of time before he was written off as Germany’s most mocked politician again.

And the young bucks? What of General Secretary Christian Lindner or Health Minister Philipp Rösler? They are rousing orators, and they could surely make a more sympathetic impression on the public than the largely discredited Westerwelle. And they could even embody a substantial new policy direction, a kind of social-liberal (SPD-FDP) renaissance.

But of course it’s no coincidence that Lindner and Rösler dismissed all such talk last weekend and demonstratively placed themselves at Westerwelle’s side. If they had stabbed him in the back instead, a revolt could easily have formed around them.

But what would they have gained? The important elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg are less than a hundred days away. Even the most charismatic politicians would have difficulty turning such a trend round in so little time.

On top of this, Lindner and Rösler, aged 31 and 37 respectively, are still very young and inexperienced. They know they could still rise to the top in five, ten or fifteen years, by which time the FDP could well be in a much more congenial situation. At the moment, under such inauspicious omens, there is a big danger that these young bloods could end up badly burned.

And anyway, it’s not certain that either Lindner or Rösler could command a majority in the party. The two have reportedly made a non-aggression pact between themselves, but it’s far from clear whether the judgmental and fickle state FDP leaders would accept and support them.

Health Minister Rösler has after all been thoroughly disenchanted by his year in office, and General Secretary Lindner has been a leading party politician for barely 11 months. It’s doubtful whether senior party figures like Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger or Hermann-Otto Solms, who are old enough to be their parents, would accept them as top dog.

Economic or social liberals?

It’s also doubtful whether the party rank-and-file would tolerate a change of direction from being the tax-cut party to the more compassionate kind of liberalism that Lindner advocates.

After all, Germany already has two parties liberal on social issues in the SPD and the Greens, and many FDP members believe their party should concentrate on economic liberalism. Both Lindner and Rösler would certainly be the wrong men for this.

Party putsches are necessary every now and then, as show by Angela Merkel when she was the only one in her party who dared tell former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, stained by a party financing scandal, that he was damaging the CDU.

But political coups are not really popular among voters. In most cases, open power struggles diminish a party’s reputation. It’s no accident that the decline of the SPD began in the years of their permanent leadership battle. And the fall of the Christian Social Union, Bavaria’s sister party to the CDU, only really began when they got rid of Edmund Stoiber. But the Bavarians had deeper problems then – just as the FDP does now.

A change of leadership by the Free Democrats could get messy too. Westerwelle signalled last weekend that he would be prepared to fight for his position if it came to a contest. So there will likely be no challenge to him before next spring’s state elections.

If the FDP should lose heavily, the leadership question will suddenly get more urgent anyway. If that happens, it’s likely enough that Westerwelle would resign of his own accord.

But then another debate about his position would immediately loom up to threaten him. Were Westerwelle no longer head of his party, he would suddenly face serious questions about his place in Merkel’s cabinet as foreign minister.

This analysis was published with the kind permission of ZEIT ONLINE, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

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