Merkel's coalition partners face leadership battle

Sun Apr 3, 2011 4:23am EDT

Related Topics

* German FDP party likely to dump leader on Monday

* Vice Chancellor Westerwelle blamed for erosion of support

* No snap election like in 2005 expected

By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN, April 3 (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partners face an ugly leadership battle on Monday that should cost Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle his job as party leader and may even shake the government.

But the power struggle to control the slumping FDP that has weighed on Merkel's centre-right coalition is unlikely to lead to an early election the way her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democrats (SPD) ended up out of power in 2005.

Westerwelle, widely blamed for the FDP's plunge in support, is expected to announce he will step aside as FDP chairman at a party executive meeting on Monday after one last try to hang on. He will fight hard to stay Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor.

"We've got to restore our credibility," Health Minister Philipp Roesler told Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday.

Roesler, 38, is the head of the FDP in Lower Saxony and considered a favourite to replace his erstwhile mentor along with FDP deputy party leader Christian Lindner, 32. Both were loyal to Westerwelle but distanced themselves in recent days.

Westerwelle has for months been under enormous pressure to bow out from within his party, junior partners in the coalition led by Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU). The FDP has suffered a string of humiliating regional election defeats since 2009.

Polls show Westerwelle is the most unpopular politician in Germany even though foreign ministers are usually the most popular figures in Germany. He hoped to hang on until an FDP executive meeting on April 11 on the party's future direction.

But the timetable has been accelerated against his will.

"The FDP has suffered an unparalleled loss of credibility since they re-entered the government in 2009 and their misery is due to one person: Westerwelle," said Manfred Guellner, head of Forsa polling institute.

"Every post-war foreign minister before him enjoyed public high standing," Guellner added. "But with Westerwelle people just say 'he's not up for the job'."

NO SNAP ELECTION EXPECTED

Westerwelle has rejected calls to resign even though the FDP has fallen to or below 5 percent in polls from 14.6 percent in the 2009 federal election. The FDP also stumbled in state elections in 2011, failing to win seats in two state assemblies.

When Schroeder's SPD and their Greens partners lost control of key states in 2005 in similar fashion to the centre-right's demise this year, he called a snap federal election.

But Merkel is not expected to do the same for three reasons: her CDU is not as unpredictable as the SPD; the situation is not as bleak in the upper house of parliament as it was for the SPD; and Merkel is not a gifted campaigner as Schroeder was.

With a growing number of regional FDP leaders and even former backers now rebelling against the man blamed for the party's slide, Westerwelle will almost certainly announce on Monday he will not run again as leader at a congress in May.

But that may not be enough and his jobs as foreign minister and vice chancellor could also possibly be in jeopardy if the meeting on Monday (starts at 0700 GMT) turns ugly.

"The party will not accept it if we don't make changes on Monday," Daniel Bahr, head of the FDP in Westerwelle's home state of North Rhine-Westphalia, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper on Sunday.

The erosion of support for the FDP has hurt and de-stabilised Merkel's coalition. Fearing election defeats, the FDP has been highly sceptical about euro zone rescue measures and did a U-turn on nuclear power after the Japan disaster.

But all that did not help. Merkel's CDU lost control of the conservative state of Baden-Wuerttemberg last week for the first time in 58 years, largely because the FDP was so weak.

Westerwelle also has been widely criticised at home after Germany broke ranks with its allies the United States, France and Britain in abstaining on a U.N. vote authorising the use of force to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and protect civilians.

"Under normal circumstances he doesn't have a chance," said Gerd Langguth, Bonn University political scientist. "But you never know with Westerwelle. If he resigns as party leader, it's a slippery slope and I doubt he can stay foreign minister."

The FDP's shakeup on Monday could also possibly cost Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle, 65, his job. Roesler is reportedly eager to become economy minister with Bahr, now deputy health minister, likely to be the next health minister.

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