Merkel's coalition partner faces collapse

Sat, Jan 7, 2012, 00:00

JUST WHEN Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP) thought life couldn’t get any worse yesterday, it did.

FDP members gathered in Stuttgart for their post-Christmas think-in as the latest opinion poll showed support has collapsed to a record low of two per cent.

Beleaguered party leader Philipp Rösler took to the stage of the ornate opera house to rally the party he has headed since last year’s heave against former leader, Guido Westerwelle.

Then, 10 minutes into his address, bad news began rippling through the auditorium: the party had been ousted from power in neighbouring Saarland.

The new year, though just a week old, could yet trump a disastrous 2011 for German chancellor Angela Merkel’s junior coalition partner. The one-time kingmaker is now, leading analysts say, surplus to political requirements.

“Together we can yank the rudder around,” said Mr Rösler to his party delegates, unaware of the news from Saarland. “We are not just the corrective, we hold our course when others shift the axis of German politics.” With no one prepared to whisper him the news, Mr Rösler’s speech took on a tragic quality, of the captain on the bridge of a political ship adrift, even sinking.

The 38-year-old leader intended his first address to the annual Three Kings meeting to end the party’s focus on tax cuts, framing the FDP instead as the guarantor of German economic growth and, with it, jobs and prosperity.

Down the road from Stuttgart in the Saar capital, Saarbrücken, the local Christian Democratic Union (CDU) waited until Mr Rösler had begun talking, then pulled the plug after just two years in office.

State premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said months of FDP in-fighting had undermined fatally their three-way coalition with the Green Party.

“Ongoing quarrels . . . have left the FDP in a state of breakdown,” said Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer. “A return to an orderly state is not in sight.”

Tiny Saarland is rarely of political importance at federal level but yesterday’s collapse generated shock waves for two reasons. The three-party government was the first attempt at a “Jamaica” coalition, named after the parties’ respective colours. With the Saar CDU eyeing a grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), it’s unlikely the party in Berlin or elsewhere will attempt another Jamaica experiment anytime soon.

In Berlin, federal government politicians from both the FDP and CDU hurried to contain the collateral damage by framing the Saar collapse as a regional problem.

But analysts see a wider malaise in Dr Merkel’s coalition partner. According to an ARD television poll just 15 per cent of Germans now see the FDP as a credible party, well behind the Left Party and the newly formed Pirate Party. The FDP leader Rösler, his deputy leader conceded yesterday, “is not the fighter type”.

The crucial question now for Dr Merkel is: at what point will her coalition partner’s meltdown become hers.

Andrea Nahles, SPD general secretary, said the danger point had already been reached: “This all shows that the FDP is no longer a serious political partner, nationwide.”