Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s beleaguered foreign minister, has announced that he will not run again as FDP party chairman next month, a move that will also cost him the post of Vice Chancellor in Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU/CSU-FDP coalition government.
Westerwelle’s decision to focus above all on his job as foreign minister came exactly a week after his party suffered devastating defeats in two important regional elections. In both cases, voters were heavily influenced by the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, which created a powerful political tsunami that swept the anti-nuclear Greens (and the left-wing SPD party) to power in Baden-Wuerttemberg – one of Germany’s wealthiest and most conservative states.
For decades, Baden-Wuerttemberg, which is home to global players such as Daimler, Porsche, SAP, and Bosch, had been a major political bastion of both the CDU and the FDP parties.
For Chancellor Merkel and foreign minister Westerwelle, the loss of power in Baden-Wuerttemberg clearly marks a new low point in their already struggling center-right CDU/CSU-FDP coalition that has been ruling the country since October 2009. Just eighteen months ago, Westerwelle was seen as the new government’s strongman, someone who had turned the FDP into Germany’s third-largest political force (achieving 14.2 percent of the vote) and would push for major economic and structural reforms. Today, in contrast, the FDP would be lucky if it cleared the five-percent threshold needed to enter the German Bundestag.
At first glance, the Chancellor and her deputy would have been expected to ride high on the back of Germany’s stellar economic performance. Strong export-led GDP growth (+3.6 percent in 2010), primarily fuelled by Chinese and Indian demand, has allowed Germany to quickly recover from the recent global financial crisis, thus keeping unemployment down (at 7.6 percent) and setting the stage for another “Wirtschaftswunder” (economic miracle) much admired abroad.
However, heavy coalition infighting over issues such as taxation and healthcare reform as well as the wide-spread perception that the ruling coalition was not accomplishing anything, left many voters frustrated and disillusioned. Add the huge credibility gap in the wake of the Fukushima incident: Merkel and Westerwelle rushed to impose a moratorium on the extension of Germany’s nuclear power plants in a last-ditch effort to appease panicky German citizens ahead of last Sunday’s regional elections (iodine pills and Geiger counters are pretty much sold out across the country).
However, the move backfired as center-left voters accused the government of opportunism and hypocrisy while many pro-nuclear center-right CDU/FDP voters were disappointed that their party leaders flip-flopped on what had been one of the coalition’s major political achievements (i.e., to overcome the previous Red-Green government’s decision to phase out all nuclear power plants by 2021).
Against the background of the FDP’s recent electoral defeats, the political pressure on Westerwelle to step down as party chairman and Vice Chancellor simply grew too strong. Soon after joining the government back in 2009, he had become the German media’s favorite punch bag. Realizing that Westerwelle did not really have much passion for or expertise in foreign policy, each of the minister’s gaffes was accompanied by a widespread sense of Schadenfreude at home.
Westerwelle’s shortcomings were even more obvious when contrasted with the stellar political performance and skyrocketing popularity of former CSU defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who essentially sidelined Westerwelle on foreign and security policy matters until he himself stepped down over a plagiarism scandal.
In the end, it did not really matter what Westerwelle did or said. Ten years after assuming the FDP chairmanship and barely 18 months after joining the Merkel government, it has become crystal clear that the 49-year old Westerwelle is a spent political force. Ironically, Westerwelle hangs on to his post as foreign minister, the very job for which he is arguably least qualified.
So who will take over as FDP party chairman and German Vice Chancellor in mid-May? The anointed new leader is one of the FDP’s shooting stars, 38-year-old Philipp Roessler, who has served as federal health minister since the fall of 2009. The affable Roessler – a married doctor with two little twin daughters who comes across as the ultimate Mr. Nice Guy – marks a bold break with the past. Born in Vietnam and adopted by German parents from a Catholic orphanage at the age of two, Roessler grew up in the northern state of Lower Saxony, where he served as economics minister and FDP chairman before moving, rather reluctantly, to the national stage in Berlin.
As the next FDP chairman, Roessler would have ideally wanted to leave the unpopular health ministry (who, after all, likes to sell painful reforms?) and instead take over the economics ministry – a smart move that would have allowed him to reassert the FDP’s leadership role in its traditional core competency.
In the end, however, Roessler and his close ally Christian Lindner, the 32-year-old secretary general of the party, were reluctant to aggressively push out the old FDP guard, which includes German economics minister Rainer Bruederle and justice minister Sabine Leutheuser-Schnarrenberger. As a result, Roessler will remain health minister (which is not a first-rate portfolio) while both Bruederle and Leutheuser-Schnarrenberger retain their current positions. This week, Roessler opted for what “Der Spiegel” dubbed the “Kuschel-Putsch” (i.e., a soft and cozy putsch) rather than a full-scale leadership reshuffle. Moving forward, Philipp Roessler will certainly have to be more forceful if he wants to leave his mark on both the FDP and German politics.