Guido Westerwelle's speech in Stuttgart on Thursday may have been brimming with self-confidence and projections of unity, according to the nation's newspapers, but it ignored the glaring reality – his party is deeply unpopular.
Such was the general response of Germany's media to Westerwelle's keynote party conference speech. The pro-business FDP under Westerwelle does not appear to be learning from its mistakes of the past 18 months, during which it has seen its record election result from 2009 melt to approval ratings as low as a paltry 3 percent.
Its efforts to define itself in contrast to its foes on the left, notably the environmentalist Greens and the socialist Left party, have served to highlight its own failings.
The centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote that Westerwelle was becoming the “Edmund Stoiber of the FDP” – referring to the former Bavarian premier who had modernized the Christian Social Union and led it to record election success but whose failings and eccentricities ultimately undermined him.
“The speech was worse than usual and well below expectations,” it wrote. “It was too loud, too self-righteous, too inflated, too full of glowing praise, too far from reality and too stale. It was too far removed from the problems of his party. Just as there was too much style and not enough substance, there was too much ado about nothing.”
Rather than trying to define its own substance, the party has tried to frighten voters with the prospect of a “red-red-green” coalition of the centre-left Social Democrats, the Greens and The Left party.
“Because it has been very cold for the FDP, its leaders are trying to warm themselves by rubbing against the Greens. But it is precisely the comparison with the second liberal party that makes the failings of the FDP so clear.”
The left-wing TAZ likewise slammed the lack of self-reflection in Westerwelle's speech.
“Not a bit of self-criticism. ‘We have done almost everything right. The opposition is to blame,'” the paper wrote.
The FDP has inherent problems because Westerwelle has turned it into a single-issue tax cut party at a time when fiscal austerity is making tax cuts impossible. At the time of the September 2009 election, when the party won nearly 15 percent of the vote, the FDP was “an overvalued stock,” the paper argued.
Yet even given this handicap, the FDP has carried itself badly, the paper stated.
“You could almost pity them,” it concluded.
Nor were the more conservative media outlets much impressed. The Berliner Morgenpost pointed out that the FDP was stuck with Westerwelle because there was no one else. But Westerwelle had to change – and that meant building a more substantial platform.
“Westerwelle has to learn a new song,” it wrote. “This does not mean upending core elements. But anyone who wants to expand freedom in a modern society has to do more than let it deteriorate into a stereotype. He must give it substance. The world offers enough themes for that and the election in Baden-Württemberg is Westerwelle's next test.”
Indeed, the prospect of a wipeout in the key Baden-Württemberg state election on March 27 loomed large in the analysis of the party's fortunes. Ultimately this would be the real test, wrote the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Even a brilliant speech can't actually save a leader perceived to be dragging his party down. Only a strong – or at least adequate – performance in the key state elections that are looming, especially in Baden-Württemberg, can rescue Westerwelle.
“In the face of the difficult situation, you can call Westerwelle's speech fair,” it concluded.
The right-wing Die Welt wrote that the FDP's strenuous effort to demonstrate unity meant it ended up looking inward – yet without the self-reflection it really needs.
The party conference spent too much time defining the FDP in relation to opponents – the Greens and The Left party.
“The FDP does not glow and glitter from within. It is no accident that from the dream theme of (controversial rail project) Stuttgart 21 they have not been capable of lighting a spark. Strong in the attack, they have difficulties with self-reflection and self-criticism ... The fact that nothing was learned about the FDP's slump in Stuttgart, and that the dehydration of the FDP in Angela Merkel's desert was not debated, added to the already existing weaknesses.”