What could possibly be worse than losing an election?
Try winning one.
This, in the shortest possible words, was what happened to the FDP in Germany and its chairman Guido Westerwelle. Last October, the party recorded its best performance at a federal election since 1949, but within a year two-thirds of the voters had disappeared and Westerwelle is facing demands for his resignation.
As the old poet said: Himmelhoch jauchzend, zum Tode betrübt.
Some aspects of the collapse in the support for FDP may seem slightly odd as Westerwelle could hardly be said to be an unknown factor in German national politics. He had been secretary general of the party between 1994 and 2001, an MdB since 1996 and party chairman since 2001. In 2005 he ran on the promise of forming a government with CDU/CSU and everybody – everybody! – expected such a coalition to emerge from the 2009 election.
On the other hand, much of what made Westerwelle a well-known figure in German politics and public life, may not have been what would make a German statesman. In earlier campaigns he had devised a number of high-profile stunts which did give him a lot of attention – project 18,1 appearing as a surprise guest in a German version of Big Brother, the Guidomobil – but whose relevance for the urgent political problems of the day was often rather oblique. Westerwelle was the main exponent of what the Germans call “Spassgesellschaft”. Maybe somebody forgot to tell him that the 2008 financial crisis meant that it was – to use another German phrase – “Schluss mit Lustig”.
And given his track record Westerwelle was just about the last person who should complain about German society reflecting late-Roman decadency.
But FDP’s problems go beyond Westerwelle. The party has always been torn between at lest two factions – one market-liberal and one political-liberal (social-liberal is slightly misleading, we are talking about the support for what Germans would call the Rechtsstaat and civic rights) – and it has always been a party lobbying for business interests. This is acceptable for a party with 6-8 percent of the vote. 15 percent – and we are in a completely different ballgame even if (or perhaps especially when) many of the new voters were on loan from CDU and CSU. Westerwelle and the FDP leadership still haven’t learnt the implications of this lesson. It takes more than lowered VAT for hotels to maintain support for a party. Add an incomprehensible sickness insurance reform and voters leave in droves.
As said in the introduction, there are calls for Westerwelle’s resignation as party chairman. The problem is that the only alternative party grandees have come up with is Trade and Industry Minister Rainer Brüderle. Just to illustrate: Let us for the sake of argument imagine that Søren Pind had been the chairman of the Danish Conservatives only to be replaced by Bendt Bendtsen after an internal rebellion. A fascinating prospect.
Party activists argue that Westerwelle, like Hans-Dietrich Genscher, could continue as foreign minister after stepping down as party leader but it is questionable if this is a workable solution. After all, Genscher had been foreign minister in ten years and made his mark on European and global politics. Westerwelle … well, there is the hotel VAT …
- Given the German history, the name Project 18 was inappropriate as 1 signifies the letter A and 8 the letter H [↩]