Merkel partners seek new leader, new start

4th April 2011, Comments 0 comments

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's ailing junior coalition partners sought a fresh start Monday after Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle quit as party leader following 10 years at the helm.

Westerwelle, 49, gave into intense pressure Sunday and said he was stepping down as chairman of the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) in May.

He intends to remain as foreign minister, although reports on Monday said that he will also step down as deputy chancellor.

"It is an exceptional day for me personally but I am sure that it is the right decision, also to ensure a generational change in the FDP," he said late Sunday in Berlin, declining to take questions from reporters.

Merkel late Sunday called Westerwelle's departure a "turning point for the (FDP) ... but the work of the CDU-FDP coalition will continue," referring to her conservative Christian Democrats.

His announcement followed a string of dismal state election results for Merkel's governing coalition in recent weeks.

Westerwelle's party failed to win seats in parliament in two of the elections and only just managed to do so in a third. A poll released Friday showed that 69 percent of voters put the blame squarely on Westerwelle.

In national surveys the party is on around five percent, the minimum for seats in parliament, down from the 14.6 percent scored in federal elections in September 2009.

That election result allowed Merkel, 56, to ditch the unwieldy alliance of her first term with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and form a coalition with Westerwelle's FDP instead.

But the "dream coalition" has been anything but, with pre-election promises of tax cuts unfulfilled and the parties descending into public squabbling and name-calling over everything from healthcare reforms to energy policy.

Although the sharp-tongued Westerwelle had shepherded the FDP back into government after 11 years out of power, critics said his skills were better suited to sniping from the opposition benches than serving in office.

Westerwelle is also post-war Germany's most unpopular foreign minister, according to polls, and he came under fire for Berlin's abstention last month on a UN Security Council resolution on Libya.

Possible successors at the helm of the FDP, 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.

The party leadership was due to meet Monday morning.

"Throwing away (voter) trust is a thousand times easier than winning it back," the Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger local said in an editorial. "New faces will not suffice."

It said that the fact that Westerwelle is staying on as foreign minister will not help, since he "embodies the past."

© 2011 AFP

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