For those who watch and observe German politics on a regular basis, Guido Westerwelle’s resignation on 3 April 2011 as leader of Germany’s Free Democrats (FDP) in the wake of his party’s dreadful showing at the Land elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg on 27 March comes as little surprise, although the end has perhaps come rather sooner than might have been expected. After all, under his leadership, the FDP managed to secure representation in all sixteen federal states, and, prior to 27 March, governmental participation in seven. And to top it all, in 2009, Mr Westerwelle led his party to easily its best result at federal level ever, with 14.6 per cent of the vote. In fact, it was the FDP’s strength which enabled the CDU to leave its grand coalition with the SPD, not the other way around, and the FDP was rewarded with five federal cabinet portfolios for the first time in its history. Mr Westerwelle himself fulfilled his lifelong ambition of becoming Foreign Minister.
But politics is not about gratitude, and in many ways, the recent election results were the tipping point for a sense of dissatisfaction that had been stewing in the party for some time. Since returning to government in 2009 after an eleven-year hiatus, itself a sore point for the party with best record of all German parties in terms of governmental participation, it has struggled to make an impact. Thus, the party continued to demand tax cuts when the government’s fiscal situation clearly did not allow for these; similarly, it pushed through some ill-judged tax breaks for the hotel and hospitality industry, and changed the rules for providers of private health insurance, both of which are traditional supporters of the party. And as Foreign Minister, Mr Westerwelle invited known party donors to accompany him on his official trips abroad. None of this helped to disassociate the FDP from its image as a clientilistic party, nor from its unflattering sobriquet as Partei der Besserverdiener.
What is more, Mr Westerwelle’s predeliction for shameless self-publicity – remember Projekt 18 with matching shoes , or the 2002 Guidomobil – has not compensated for (and instead even amplified) his capacity for cringe-inducing appearances (on this, see the telling profile on Spiegel TV [in German] following the 2009 election). This certainly contributed to his finding the transition from opposition cheerleader to governmental leader difficult to make. In particular, in February 2010, he launched a frontal attack on recipients of social welfare (‘Hartz IV’) in Germany, bemoaning what he described as the country’s ‘late Roman decadence’ (spätrömische Dekadenz). This ensuing furore resulted in all the wrong kind of publicity for the FDP, and Mr Westerwelle’s actions sat uneasily with his new position as international statesman. As a result, he had the unique distinction of not only being the most unpopular Foreign Minister in the history of the Federal Republic (itself an achievement), but being the least popular politician in Germany full stop.
While his decision to step down as leader was greeted with relief by FDP grandees, the party is by no means out of the woods yet. Mr Westerwelle’s designated successor, the federal health minister Philipp Rösler, 38, is a relative newcomer and holder of a portfolio which has traditionally been a political minefield, and hence does not lend itself easily as a base from which to lead a party out of a crisis. Unfortunately for him, this is precisely what he will have to do: not only will Mr Westerwelle remain as Foreign Minister (at least for the time being), but the Economics Minister, the ageing Rainer Brüderle, has refused point blank to make way for Mr Rösler. Moreover, Mr Rösler may find it hard to combine his role as leader with his personal situation: his wife is also a practising doctor and he has twin girls under the age of three; indeed, he originally declared that he only intended to continue in politics until the age of 45. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that the real Crown Prince designate is the FDP’s General Secretary, Christian Lindner, but who, at the tender age of 32, was simply seen as too young to ascend to the top job just yet.
Lastly, spare a thought for Mr Westerwelle himself. All he has ever known is the FDP and at the age of just 49, his career in the party is now effectively over, and it is surely also now just a matter of time before he will also be required to vacate his position as Foreign Minister. Although he will clearly never be one of the Hartz IV recipients of social welfare he so vehemently criticised last year, he will now have to fill a significant void in his own life.