Westerwelle and the FDP: Unloved yet irreplaceable

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.

Westerwelle and the FDP: Unloved yet irreplaceable
Photo: DPA

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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Germany’s far-right AfD ahead in regional poll with anti-shutdown stance

Best known as an anti-migrant party, Germany's far-right AfD has seized on the coronavirus pandemic to court a new type of voter ahead of regional elections in the state of Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday: anti-shutdown activists.

Germany's far-right AfD ahead in regional poll with anti-shutdown stance
Björn Höcke, party chairman in Thuringia, at an election event in Merseburg, Saxony-Anhalt on May 29th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Willnow

“Sending so many people into poverty with so few infections is problematic for us,” is how Oliver Kirchner, the AfD’s top candidate in Saxony-Anhalt, views the measures ordered by the government to halt Covid-19 transmission.

The anti-shutdown stance seems to be paying off in the former East German state. The party is riding high in the polls and even stands a chance of winning a regional election for the first time.

READ ALSO: Germany’s far-right AfD chooses hardline team ahead of national elections

Surveys have the AfD neck-and-neck with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, with the Bild daily even predicting victory for the far-right party on 26 percent, ahead of the CDU on 25 percent.

In Saxony-Anhalt’s last election in 2016, the CDU was the biggest party, scoring 30 percent and forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens.

But the CDU has taken a hammering in the opinion polls in recent months, with voters unhappy with the government’s pandemic management and a corruption scandal involving shady coronavirus mask contracts.

Social deprivation

A victory for the AfD would spell a huge upset for the conservatives just four months ahead of a general election in Germany — the first in 16 years not to feature Merkel.

They started out campaigning against the euro currency in 2013. Then in 2015 they capitalised on public anger over Merkel’s 2015 decision to let in a wave of asylum seekers from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The party caused a sensation in Germany’s last general election in 2017 when it secured almost 13 percent of the vote, entering parliament for the first time as the largest opposition party.

Troubled by internal divisions and accusations of ties to neo-Nazi fringe groups, the party has more recently seen its support at the national level stagnate at between 10 and 12 percent.

READ ALSO: Germany’s far-right AfD investigated over election ties

The party is also controversial in Saxony-Anhalt itself. In state capital Magdeburg, posters showing local candidate Hagen Kohl have been defaced with Hitler moustaches and the words “Never again”.

For wine merchant Jan Buhmann, 57, victory for the far-right party would be a “disaster”.

“The pandemic has shown that we need new ideas. We need young people, we need dynamism in the state. For me, the AfD does not stand for that,” he said.

Yet the AfD’s core supporters have largely remained unwavering in the former East German states.

For pensioner Hans-Joachim Peters, 73, the AfD is “the only party that actually tells it like it is”.

Politicians should “think less about Europe and more about Germany”, he told AFP in Magdeburg. AfD campaigners there were handing out flyers calling for “resistance” and “an end to all anti-constitutional restrictions on our liberties”.

Political scientist Hajo Funke of Berlin’s Free University puts the AfD’s core strength in eastern Germany down to “social deprivation and frustration” resulting from problems with reunification.

The party’s latest anti-corona restrictions stance has also helped it play up its anti-establishment credentials, adding some voters to its core base, he said.

Other east German states in which the AfD has a stronghold, such as Saxony and Thuringia, continue to have the highest 7-day incidences per 100,000 residents in the country. Saxony-Anhalt’s 7-day incidence, however, currently is below the national average (31.3) as of Wednesday June 3rd.

READ ALSO: Why are coronavirus figures so high in German regions with far-right leanings?

Hijab snub

Funke predicted the AfD would attract broadly the same voters in
Saxony-Anhalt as it did in 2016, when it won 24 percent of the vote.

“Some have dropped off because the party is too radical, some radicals who didn’t vote are now voting and some of those who are anti-corona are also voting for the AfD,” he said.

The Sachsen-Anhalt-Monitor 2020 report, commissioned by the local government, found that the main concern for voters in the region was the economic fallout from the pandemic. But the AfD’s core selling point — immigration and refugees — was number two on their list.

According to AfD candidate Kirchner, many people in Saxony-Anhalt still view the influx of refugees to Germany “very critically”.

“And I think they are right,” he said at a campaign stand in Magdeburg decked in the AfD’s signature blue. “Who is going to rebuild Syria? Who is going to do that if everyone comes here?”

When a young woman wearing a hijab walked past the stand, no one attempted to hand her a flyer.

By Femke Colborne