BERLIN Angela Merkel's outgoing coalition partners, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), pinned their hopes on a new leader on Monday to rescue them from oblivion, a day after crashing out of Germany's parliament for the first time in their history.
The FDP won just 4.8 percent of the vote, humiliating for a party once respected as kingmaker in Germany's coalition-oriented political system, and a member of governments on the left or right for 46 of the past 63 years.
Its former luminaries include Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who as foreign minister for nearly 20 years helped to bring about German reunification under conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl.
As Philipp Roesler, the party's young Vietnamese-born leader, said he would step down, charismatic regional player Christian Lindner, a beacon for many in the FDP who has been waiting in the wings, said he was willing to lead the fightback.
"It was the bitterest of nights for all liberals in Germany, and of course also for me personally," a visibly shattered Roesler said outside the Bundestag offices the party will shortly have to vacate.
"We know that there are about 15-20 percent of people who think and feel liberal, who want to live liberal lives and who would vote for a liberal party. We couldn't convince these people yesterday, but a new formation could."
Lindner, just 34, fought an impressive campaign last year to keep the FDP in the assembly of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). He stood down as FDP general secretary in 2011 in what was mostly seen as a tactical move to distance himself from Roesler.
The market-friendly FDP won a record 14.6 percent of the vote in 2009, boosted by votes from Merkel supporters wanting to grant the chancellor her preferred center-right coalition.
But as junior coalition partner, the FDP often appeared inept and divided, unable to claim credit for any of Germany's economic success. Their ratings dipped as low as 2 or 3 percent and they dropped out of six of Germany's 16 regional assemblies.
Roesler, who served as economy minister and deputy chancellor, tried to turn things around after taking over in 2011. He seemed to make headway in 2013, particularly after he chose veteran Rainer Bruederle to lead the election campaign.
But the FDP was unable to retain voters disappointed by its broken promises on tax cuts, underwhelmed by its ministers and skeptical that the liberals had contributed anything at all.
It is a scenario that looks made for the slick and confident Lindner, who last year averted the threat of the FDP falling out of the NRW regional assembly, eventually securing 8.6 percent, well above the 5 percent threshold to win seats.
"There's no one better than Christian Lindner. He's someone who can drag the party out of its lethargy," said Wolfgang Kubicki, head of the FDP in the northern state of Schleswig Holstein.
The FDP's demise is also partly due to the rise of the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD), which took 330,000 of its votes. But it lost almost 1.7 million votes to Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), according to the pollster Infratest dimap.
"For years, the FDP has had the weakest profile of any party ... and their classic small business clientele just didn't support the party anymore," said pollster Renate Koecher of the Allensbach Institute.
"They do have a chance to come back, but it depends on whether they renew their policies and personnel."
There was harsh criticism from within the FDP even of their last-ditch begging for charity votes from CDU loyalists.
"Anyone who makes himself small will be seen that way by voters too," said Kubicki.
As the self-proclaimed voice of small businesses, the self-employed and professionals, the FDP had promised taxation caps, deregulation and energy subsidies for heavy power users.
However, reflecting a shift to the left across the board in Germany, Roesler fought to have the party introduce a sector-specific minimum wage - sacrilege for many FDP purists.
Among those to express concern at the party's demise was Germany's association of family businesses, which urged Merkel to make German competitiveness a key focus.
"We fear that a liberal force in the Bundestag will be sorely lacking as, particularly in critical areas such as economy policy, Germany needs a voice of reason," it said.
(Editing by Gareth Jones and Kevin Liffey)