'Joker' of German politics has last laugh on election night

28th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

A triumphant showing for Westerwelle's business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) will allow Merkel to form her dream centre-right coalition, and has given the 47-year-old lawyer the last laugh.

Berlin -- Guido Westerwelle, the likely foreign minister and vice-chancellor in Angela Merkel's new government, has had to shake off a "joker" image to make it in the staid world of German politics.

A triumphant showing for Westerwelle's business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) will allow Merkel to form her dream centre-right coalition, and has given the 47-year-old lawyer the last laugh.

The head of what until Sunday was Germany's biggest opposition party used to make headlines for moving into TV's Big Brother house for a few hours, painting his party's election goal of 18 percent on the soles of his shoes, and coming out as gay.

But on Sunday, he led his pro-business party to its best-ever result of just under 15 percent, not far from the figure he painted on his shoes.

"We are ready to take up the challenge of government," he told delirious, champagne-quaffing supporters.

After 11 years in the political wilderness, Westerwelle has shaken off a foppish image and says he has no worries about becoming the country's first openly gay top diplomat.

"Of course I made some mistakes when I was young but one grows older and wiser," he told AFP in an interview this year when asked about his more memorable publicity stunts.

"But the Germans seem to see us positively -- otherwise they wouldn't have given us one of the best results in our history at the last national election."

Since that 9.8-percent score in 2005, the FDP has seen its support soar at times to within four points of the Social Democrats, Germany's oldest political outfit.

And with just under 15 percent in this year's election, the party, which advocates lower taxes and slashed welfare payments, is set to be a major force in German politics in the next four years.

The sharp-tongued Westerwelle, seen as one of parliament's most gifted debaters, has fought to strip his party of its yuppie image and touted a slimmed-down tax policy he says will boost the middle class.

"We want to partake in the government of Germany to bring about a better tax system," he said after the election triumph.

He did his part to liven up a television debate with the top opposition candidates this month, the night after a soporific "duel" between Merkel and her challenger, outgoing Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Westerwelle says he stands by the "basic tenets" of postwar foreign policy, but cites non-proliferation, including a withdrawal of the US nuclear warheads stationed in Germany since the Cold War, as a priority.

He dismisses concerns raised in the media about whether his homosexuality could pose problems if he became foreign minister.

"Some other countries may have had a problem with the fact that Angela Merkel became the first female chancellor of Germany. Of course she does not wear a veil on the red carpet when she visits certain Arab states," he said.

"The decision as to whom we send as a government representative rests solely with us Germans based on our political and moral standards."

Westerwelle had his official coming-out when he attended Merkel's 50th birthday party in 2004 with his partner, businessman Michael Mronz.

As for his stint on reality TV and the bright yellow "18" he used to paint on the bottom of his shoes, Westerwelle said Germans appreciated a politician who did not take himself too seriously.

"Maybe the Germans aren't as uptight as people abroad sometimes think," he said with a smile.

AFP/Expatica

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