by editor | 22nd December 2010 9:24 am
Party Rebels Sharpen Knives for Guido Westerwelle
Chancellor Merkel’s junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, have hit rock bottom. Now, a movement is afoot to topple their leader, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, ahead of important regional elections next year. Westerwelle, though, wants to remain at the head of his party. By SPIEGEL Staff
There are conversations in which something ruptures. After these encounters, everyone knows that the previous phase of subtle aggression is over and open war has begun. Guido Westerwelle, the head of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) and German foreign minister, had such a conversation on Dec. 2.
The FDP parliamentary floor leaders from seven German states were meeting with Westerwelle at the party’s national headquarters in Berlin. Before the meeting, they had coordinated the message they were bringing to the FDP leader, namely that he scares off voters and is pursuing the wrong strategy, and that the party’s only option now is radical change — perhaps even including a change in leadership.
But Westerwelle gave the delegation such short shrift that it hardly managed to deliver its message. Berlin politician Christoph Meyer began the offensive by saying that the party leadership has an image problem that is making it difficult to motivate members to campaign on behalf of the FDP. Westerwelle quickly interrupted Meyer, brusquely telling him that he could rest assured that he, Westerwelle, knew a thing or two about election campaigns.
Hans-Ulrich Rülke, the FDP floor leader in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, told Westerwelle that there is growing anger and frustration within the party, and that it’s directed at the leadership. Again, Westerwelle interrupted, saying that he was perfectly aware of the mood in the party — and that one shouldn’t set too much store by moods.
Veit Wolpert, the floor leader in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, said cautiously that voters in his state don’t like polarization, a comment Westerwelle was quick to disparage.
People who attended the meeting report that the atmosphere was frosty in Westerwelle’s office. The FDP chairman had figured out what the real issue at stake was: his resignation. “The goal of the meeting wasn’t exactly a mystery to me,” he said, only to point out that he would continue to do what he feels is right for the party.
At the end of the meeting, Rülke told Westerwelle that he had read in the diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks that Westerwelle became aggressive when he felt challenged by political heavyweights. “Now I suppose I can think of myself as a political heavyweight,” Rülke said with a smirk. The meeting ended without clear results.
If Westerwelle had hoped that he could intimidate his adversaries with his harsh reaction, he was wrong. The FDP is in turmoil. The latest survey by the polling institute Forsa shows support for the party at just 3 percent, its lowest level since 1996 (see “Poll Barometer” graphic). If national elections were held now, the FDP would not even pass the 5 percent hurdle needed to get seats in the Bundestag.
The party has had enough. It no longer wants its chairman, and the process of ousting Westerwelle is in full swing.
In an interview with SPIEGEL last week, Wolfgang Kubicki, the chairman of the FDP parliamentary group in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, set the signal for what could very well be the last stage in this process, when he compared the condition of his party with the “last days of East Germany.” Since then, critical voices have rained down on Westerwelle like a hail of bullets.
Veit Wolpert from Saxony-Anhalt offers a devastating assessment of the Dec. 2 meeting with Westerwelle when he says: “We aren’t asking for any support from Berlin. In fact, we would be happy if the damage could be contained.”
The Gloves Come Off
A state election is scheduled in Saxony-Anhalt for March 2011, and it’s no coincidence that politicians from that state are now pouncing on Westerwelle. There will be a total of seven state parliamentary elections in Germany next year. Until now, FDP politicians were mostly concerned about the party’s poor showing in opinion polls. But in 2011, seats in state parliaments and political offices will be at stake — and now the gloves are beginning to come off.
Westerwelle’s current position resembles that of Kurt Beck before he stepped down as national chairman of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 2008. Not too long ago, Westerwelle was still being hailed as a hero, but now he is being blamed for everything. Nowadays there are two realities when it comes to Westerwelle. On the one hand, those in his presence treat him as party leader. But behind his back, many are already discussing his overthrow and what happens after that. In such phases, politicians are like ghosts; it’s as if they were leading a political life that has in fact already ended.
There is already someone who can imagine having Westerwelle’s life. People call him “Mister X,” using the English expression. He has taken it upon himself to challenge Westerwelle at the national party convention in May. His small group of supporters is keeping his name a secret. He is probably not a prominent party member with prospects, but someone who wants to show that, when there is so much resentment, it needs to be vented.
The only question is whether Westerwelle will even still be around in May to seek reelection to the chairmanship. Perhaps he will resign or be driven out first. He has been lucky so far, because there is no one in the party who is universally accepted as a possible successor.
A Tough Week for Westerwelle
Last week must have been a nightmare for Westerwelle. The Kubicki interview appeared on Monday. The interview was mentioned only briefly at a meeting of the party leadership on the same day, the consensus being that Kubicki shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and that it would be best if the issue were to quickly disappear.
The floodgates burst open at the meeting of the FDP parliamentary group on Tuesday. Westerwelle was stuck in a traffic jam on his way back from Brussels and could not attend the meeting. Floor leader Birgit Homburger opened the meeting with the usual words, saying that it was time for the FDP to market its successes more effectively. But by this stage, such an appeal seemed almost silly.
Rainer Stinner, a member of parliament, was the first to lose his cool. “If I said something like that to the party’s base, they would think I was nuts,” he said. “We have to address the substance of Kubicki’s criticism. He is basically right, after all.”
Heiner Kamp, another member of parliament, held a similar view, saying: “It’s funny that we’re talking about mini-successes here. The reality looks a little different, though. The base is horrified with us.”
Frank Schäffler, a fiscal policy expert, said: “All these trivial little things aren’t enough. What we need now is a big bang.” The collective outburst lasted more than an hour — and hardly anyone stood up for Westerwelle.
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