Barely 18 months ago, Guido Westerwelle led the Free Democratic Party (FDP) to its greatest election triumph ever, snaring nearly 15 percent of the vote in the last federal election. But he has had hardly a good day since.
As junior coalition partner, the FDP has bickered with Angela Merkel's conservatives, been humiliated by Wikileaks revelations and generally lurched from one political stumble to the next – all the while watching its popularity slide to record lows.
Now after failing to clear the five-percent hurdle for representation in two state elections in Saxony-Anhalt and Rhineland-Palatinate, and barely squeaking into Baden-Württemberg's legislature, the beleaguered FDP leader will step down from his post as party chairman and vice chancellor. But he will attempt to hang on as foreign minister.
Is it too late, though, for the business-friendly liberals, who are struggling to define themselves in an era when budget austerity hinders tax cuts and the Greens have seized the momentum with their anti-nuclear stance?
Commentators in The Local's media roundup asked whether his successor, Health Minister Philipp Rösler, can redefine the party in time for the next election in 2013, and if Westerwelle's decision to stay on as Germany's top diplomat is tenable.
Centrist Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel asked why the nation should trust Westerwelle to continue as foreign minister when he obviously lacks even the power to organize a new beginning for the FDP.
“The country – where Angela Merkel's responsibility lies – is governed by a coalition to which the FDP belongs. It is fundamentally very simple: The people are entitled to have the problems around them, in Europe and the world, taken seriously by their government and handled in their interest. And not just any time after the coalition partners survive their journey of self-discovery, but here and now.
''Should we wait on every law for the FDP to decide between left and right, yesterday and tomorrow?”
Financial daily Handelsblatt expressed similar sentiments, writing that while the question of FDP leadership is a party matter, the foreign ministry affects the entire nation.
“Too bad for the party, but good enough for Germany? ... The government would be in an impossible position. The former FDP leader was always the first and closest contact for the chancellor, the FDP's heavyweight. But according to party rules, he now has nothing more to say.
''Should Angela Merkel govern with a politician whose own party has withdrawn its trust, and who no longer determines their policies? A sort of free radical in the foreign ministry that mutated to a retreat for an ex-party leader?”
The business daily Financial Times Deutschland said Westerwelle's resignation comes too late for the FDP, which will battle now to define itself amid many conflicting views about what it stands for.
“The FDP must be clear whether it wants to be a social, a libertarian, an ecological, an economic liberal or an EU-critical party – without confusing people. Nobody needs a clone of the Greens. That neither Rösler nor (Christian) Lindner will be clear about what position they represent won't make it any easier.
''Their 'compassionate liberalism' is a label anything can fit into. And they only have two years to work out who they are before the next federal election. That could be too little time – for Westerwelle's successor and for the whole FDP.”
Right-wing daily Die Welt wrote that while Westerwelle had gambled away his success, the architect of his party's greatest federal election success didn't deserve to chased out of office, calling the party's behaviour “shabby.”
“Whoever succeeds him in this office – as Westerwelle himself indicated in his farewell speech – will be younger. One of those from the generation who want to make the FDP a “young” party even more than Westerwelle ... It is to be feared that the victor of the dishonourable drama also can't do what the FDP needs in particular – the return to the “quaint,” a hardly leisured tradition of respect for the basic principles of civic propriety.”
The centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote that the FDP faced a difficult struggle to determine what exactly it stood for and what role it would play in the future of German politics. If it failed, that would be a sad day for democracy itself.
“You have to mourn for any democratic party that withers. With them disappears a piece of the democratic tradition. When a party folds (as the FDP is threatening to do) it is a blow for party democracy. We would prefer to do without such blows.”