The decline of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Free Democratic Party coalition partner began the day after it won a record election result in 2009.
At his first briefing since ending his party’s 11 years in opposition, Guido Westerwelle, the FDP leader and designated foreign minister, rebuffed a BBC reporter’s question in English, saying “this is Germany.” Der Spiegel magazine said he seemed “caught off-guard and helpless.” He went from the hero who helped Merkel win a second term to an object of scorn.
Three years on, his party has suffered the same fate. Polls suggest the FDP risks being shut out of Parliament in federal elections in September, a result that could force Merkel into a coalition with traditional antagonists or deprive her of a third term.
“Mrs. Merkel would still rather work with the FDP after the next election,” Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist with the Otto-Suhr-Institute at Berlin’s Free University, said by telephone. “But not at any price.” Merkel has other options, meaning “the FDP will have to haul itself out of the mire.”
A toxic cocktail of misjudgments, party infighting and tension with Merkel has driven the FDP from its post-World War II electoral high of 14.6 percent. Within four months, his party had dropped to single digits; by June 2010, FDP support had collapsed to 5 percent, the threshold to win parliamentary seats, according to a weekly Forsa poll for Stern magazine. It has hovered around there ever since and is now at 4 percent.
The FDP’s policy missteps have tracked its decline in support. In October 2009, Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc negotiated a coalition agreement with the FDP just as a Greek budget blowout kindled the financial crisis. As Merkel stepped up her calls for deficit reduction, Westerwelle’s team maintained its demand for tax cuts.
A coalition package that included a tax break for hoteliers was denounced by the opposition and some in Merkel’s faction as a sop to lobbyists. “It just didn’t come across very well at all,” said Niedermayer.
In the face of public rebuke, Westerwelle tended toward doubling down. Just three months into office, he responded to a court ruling that certain welfare payments were insufficient with the accusation that too many Germans had a “late Roman decadence” mentality, living off state coffers. Merkel issued a rebuke, saying that she wouldn’t use such a turn of phrase.
Voters were less tolerant: A Feb. 24, 2010, poll showed 60 percent saying they didn’t think the foreign minister was up to the job, a humbling assessment for the party once led by Hans-Dietrich Genscher, foreign minister in Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Cabinet and his partner in German reunification.
In April 2011, the month after his party crashed out of two regional assemblies at state elections, Westerwelle announced he would step down as party chairman and vice chancellor to let a new generation “work on a new beginning.”
His decision came seven days after the FDP scraped 5.3 percent for its worst-ever result in Baden-Wuerttemberg, a setback that cost its CDU coalition partner its 58-year hold on power and allowed the Green Party to install its first state premier. Philipp Roesler, then health minister, was elected in Westerwelle’s place the next month.
As Merkel dominated Europe’s response to the euro-area crisis, the Free Democrats under Roesler flirted with an anti-bailout stance at odds with her policy. In September 2011, Merkel won Bundestag approval for an expansion of a rescue fund that raised German guarantees to 211 billion euros ($286 billion) from 123 billion euros. FDP support dropped to 2 percent in a poll with a 2.5 percentage point margin of error.
The Free Democratic Party helped govern postwar Germany for all but three years from the republic’s founding in 1949 until 1998. In 2011 and 2012, it was ejected from the state assemblies in six of the 10 regional elections it contested. FDP lawmakers including Wolfgang Kubicki openly called for Roesler, the 39-year-old Vietnamese-born economy minister, to be replaced by Rainer Bruederle, his predecessor at the economy ministry who is now the party’s floor leader in the lower house in Berlin.
Roesler ranked least popular on a list of 15 German politicians with national exposure, according to a Jan. 7-8 Infratest Dimap poll for ARD television and Die Welt newspaper. Roesler’s approval rating of 17 percent compared with 65 percent for top-ranked Merkel and 36 percent for Peer Steinbrueck, Merkel’s Social Democrat challenger. Westerwelle, who is still foreign minister, had 40 percent. The poll of 1,001 voters had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Back in 2009, when Westerwelle snubbed the BBC, he did so even though his English is nearly fluent -- he just refused to use it. Similarly, the Free Democrats have a ready constituency of voters in the Mittelstand, small- and medium-sized business owners that are the backbone of the German economy; it has just neglected to look after them, Manfred Guellner, Forsa’s Berlin-based director, said in a Jan. 10 interview.
“The FDP isn’t lost as long as they get rid of Roesler,” Guellner said. “There’s a good chance the FDP can win back their classic Mittelstand vote of skilled workers and small company owners. With Roesler, these people felt they couldn’t vote FDP and migrated to the CDU.”
An unexpectedly strong result in a state election in Lower Saxony on Jan. 20, when the FDP took almost 10 percent, bought Roesler some respite, even though his party’s coalition with the CDU lost the state to the opposition by a single seat.
“The question is: what’s changed?” Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst at the Forsa polling institute, said in a telephone interview on Jan. 23. “We’ll have to see if Bruederle now becomes the public face of the FDP -- he’s popular with FDP core voters like the Mittelstand -- and Roesler withdraws to dealing with internal party matters. If the party infighting continues then it was all for nothing.”