* Westerwelle says Germany needs FDP
* Party at just 4 percent in polls
* Speech ignores calls for resignation
By Thorsten Severin
STUTTGART, Germany, Dec 6 Chancellor Angela
Merkel's ally Guido Westerwelle defended his Free Democrats'
record in government on Thursday and said they kept the left out
of power, but he did not address calls for his own resignation.
Germany's foreign minister and vice chancellor told a party
conference in Stuttgart the country "needs a strong FDP", at a
moment when the party often simply called the "Liberals" has
sunk to just 4 percent in opinion polls.
"We Liberals will fight and I will fight because Germany has
fared better than with a left-wing majority," said Westerwelle.
The 49-year-old led the FDP to a record performance in the
national elections 15 months ago when it took 14.6 percent and
became junior partner in Merkel's centre-right coalition.
But it has languished for months below the 5 percent
threshold for entering Germany's parliament.
Merkel risks being destabilised by the unpopularity of the
FDP, whose commitment to tax cuts -- and inability to deliver
them in the financial crisis -- has alienated voters.
While Merkel's Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister
party are steady at 34 percent in polls, the FDP's decline has
put the ruling coalition 17 points behind the opposition.
Westerwelle is a powerful orator who speech was closely
monitored for signs he might succumb to pressure to step down.
His own approval rating has sunk to 29 percent and one rebel has
called him as a "millstone round the neck" of the FDP.
Littering his speech with phrases like "proud to be German",
Westerwelle emphasised Germany's strong recovery from the global
downturn and the FDP's role, saying: "We Liberals have
contributed to our country being in such good shape and health."
He earned a standing ovation, but Manfred Guellner, head of
pollsters Forsa, said: "Even if it were a good speech, it's not
going to reach voters who have turned their backs on the party.
They've lost 80 percent of their voters since September 2009."
Peter Dausend, a columnist for Die Zeit newspaper, told
German television there was "nothing new" in the speech.
"No one's any wiser now about what the FDP's going to do
than they were before his speech. If I were an FDP voter, I'd be
angry," said Dausend. "This speech just wasn't good enough."
The centre-right faces a major political test this year with
seven state elections and the risk of losing Baden-Wuerttemberg,
which the conservatives have held for nearly 60 years.
Merkel can ill afford instability in the coalition and was
reported to have urged Westerwelle before the FDP's traditional
"Three Kings' Day" meeting to "hang on" in the face of a revolt.
Westerwelle has vowed not to "abandon ship" but appears to
have left open the question of whether he will seek re-election
as party chairman at the FDP's annual conference in May.
As foreign minister Westerwelle got off to a poor start by
refusing to answer a question in English at his first major news
conference. He was later criticised for taking his gay partner,
a German businessman, on official trips abroad.
Late last year he was embarrassed by Wikileaks' publication
of U.S. diplomatic cables describing Westerwelle as arrogant and
vain. One of his aides was revealed as the source of leaks to
the U.S. embassy about secret German coalition negotiations.
(Additional reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; writing by Stephen
Brown; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)