German foreign minister to quit as party leader

AFP , Sunday 3 Apr 2011

Guido Westerwelle expected to step down as Free Democrat leader amidst accusations of being cause of party's disastrous results in elections

Leader of FDP Westerwelle and party fellows Roesler and Niebel react after hearing first exit polls for Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate state election at party headquarters in Berlin, (Reuters).

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is expected to quit as leader of his ailing Free Democrats in a bid to shore up support for the party and the centre-right government, reports said Sunday.

Front-page headlines said the 49-year-old acknowledged the time had come for a fresh start after a series of state election debacles which have weakened Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition in Berlin.

Westerwelle returned from a trip to China and Japan on Sunday and is expected to remain foreign minister and vice chancellor for now, but media reports said he would likely clear the way for fresh leadership at a party meeting Monday.

"Westerwelle's FDP: It's Over," wrote the centre-left Tagesspiegel newspaper. "Westerwelle's heir as FDP chief will be named tomorrow," the said the mass-selling Bild am Sonntag.

Possible successors at the helm of the pro-business party, which has served as kingmaker in most German governments since World War II, include Health Minister Philipp Roesler, 38, and FDP general secretary Christian Lindner, 32.

FDP sources noted, however, that Westerwelle would likely make the announcement only when it is clear who should follow him. They said Monday's leadership meeting was scheduled to last three hours, twice as long as usual.

The sharp-tongued Westerwelle, post-war Germany's most unpopular chief diplomat according to polls, is now widely seen as a millstone around the neck of the FDP, which he has led for a decade.

A poll released Friday showed that 69 percent of voters blamed Westerwelle for the FDP's disastrous results in two key state elections a week ago. The party now has just five percent support, the minimum for seats in parliament.

Although Westerwelle shepherded the party back into government in 2009 after 11 years in the political wilderness, critics say he has an abrasive personality far better suited for sniping from the opposition benches.

The party has seen a free fall in support starting soon after it joined Merkel's coalition 18 months ago due to bitter infighting in the government over health care, energy and tax policy -- the FDP's main programme plank.

The Tagesspiegel said the FDP's weakness had become a liability for Europe's top economic power.

"People have a right to have problems on the local level, in Europe and the world taken seriously by their government and their interests protected," the Tagesspiegel wrote in a front-page editorial.

"And that does not mean at just any time, when a coalition partner has found itself again, but rather here and now."

Roesler, who was born in Vietnam and adopted by a German couple as an infant, said the FDP must change its tack to win back voters.

"We need to rebuild our lost credibility," he told the Bild am Sonntag in one of series of interviews he gave over the weekend.

Although he was seen as a front-runner to succeed Westerwelle, reports said he would accept the job only if he could take on a more high-profile ministry in Merkel's cabinet such as economy.

But the incumbent, Rainer Bruederle, is said to have no plans to budge -- at least not voluntarily.

Despite the turmoil, political scientist Nils Diederich of Berlin's Free University said he saw no sign that Merkel's government would fall.

"She has a comfortable majority in the Bundestag lower house and will be able to govern until the end of her term" in 2013, he said.

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