Just a few months ago it seemed time had run out on Philipp Rösler as FDP chairman. Now he is set for re-election at a party congress. His alleged successor is expected to lead the party into national elections.
Within Germany's political system, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) often plays the role of a majority maker, enabling the formation of a coalition government. Unless large parties win an outright majority, they are not able to govern without the support of smaller ones such as the FDP. Since 2009, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has hinged on the assistance of the Free Democrats.
Emboldened by their best results ever in the 2009 federal elections (14.6 percent), the FDP took on a tone of self-assertiveness. But this feeling of strength didn't last. It soon gave way to existential fear.
The reasons are many: failed promises on tangible tax cuts or the perception that former party chairman Guido Westerwelle is a rather weak foreign minister. Then there's Development Minister Dirk Niebel, who heads a ministry his party originally wanted to eliminate.
The numerous defeats that followed in state elections as well as the loss of power in Germany's most populous state of North-Rhine Westphalia were the consequence of a party increasingly unable to appeal to voters.
The miracle of Lower Saxony
In May 2011, Philipp Rösler – who serves as Germany's economics and technology minister – took over the party's chairmanship from long-time leader Guido Westerwelle. The Free Democrats brought in Rösler with the hope that he would present a fresh face to voters and bring about a badly needed turnaround. The FDP's strategy did not yield immediate results, though, and the new man at the top was quickly viewed as a burden.
Rösler is largely perceived as pale and stiff. His political agenda is considered fickle. The Vietnamese-born German has even been voted as Germany's least popular politician. Aged 40, Rösler is also one the youngest top-ranking politicians in the country. He appears to be aging quickly.
With opinion polls predicting the party wouldn't clear the five percent threshold (required for parliamentary representation) in this year's state elections in Lower Saxony, Rösler's fate as party chairman seemed to be sealed. Development Minister Niebel even publicly called for his removal.
Shortly before the elections, 67-year-old Rainer Brüderle, who heads the FDP's parliamentary group, had urged that the party congress – originally scheduled for May – be pushed forward by two months. It has been said that Brüderle wanted to replace Rösler as party chairman, an allegation Brüderle denied.
Then the unexpected happened. The Free Democrats won almost ten percent of the vote in Lower Saxony. Although it wasn't enough to continue the coalition government in Hanover, the results gave Rösler a much-needed boost.
An odd couple
After the surprising electoral outcome in Lower Saxony, it became difficult for his detractors to replace Rösler as party chief. Instead, the political rivals reached a somewhat peculiar agreement. Brüderle would become the FDP's top candidate in the upcoming national elections in September, while Rösler would remain party leader, provided he is re-elected at the party congress this weekend (09.03.13) in Berlin. Since he faces no opposing candidates, Rösler is expected to win the nomination.
Once again, Rösler seems to be firmly in control of the party, rendering the move to hold the congress early unnecessary. Yet Brüderle has justified the congress as being integral to the upcoming national electoral campaign. In six months Germans are to decide whether Chancellor Merkel, who assumed office in 2005, should remain in power. Merkel has stated she would prefer to govern in a coalition with the Free Democrats.
Brüderle is aware of his party's approval ratings and has stated his belief that many people "would like to see the current government leave power." He says he is also expecting "harsh attacks" from political rivals such as the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the leftist opposition party, Die Linke.
But criticism also "encourages you to stand up and fight back," he said.
Key elections for Europe
Foreign Minister Westerwelle has warned against an election victory of SPD and Greens. Together with Die Linke these parties would simply fall back to a "failed debt management policy," Westerwelle told the German daily newspaper "Tagesspiegel."
According to the former party chairman, the implementation of the European fiscal pact has put a stop to this type of policy practice throughout Europe. In the light of a possible SPD-Green coalition, he therefore believes that the upcoming German elections are not only about the fate of Germany, but also about the fate of "Europe as a whole."
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