Outgoing party chief Germany's least liked top diplomat

4th April 2011, Comments 0 comments

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, outgoing head of the liberal Free Democrats, has the dubious distinction of being the least popular top diplomat in the country's post-war history.

Westerwelle, who has announced he will no longer stand for leadership of his business-friendly party, junior partner in Angela Merkel's ailing coalition, has long struggled to be taken seriously in the staid world of German politics.

But although the foreign ministry usually bestows politicians with a boost in popularity as the friendly, open and moderate face of Germany in the world, the sharp-tongued Westerwelle has had difficulty finding his diplomatic voice.

Nevertheless, the 49-year-old trained lawyer said he would hold onto the office of foreign minister while he hands off the leadership of his Free Democrats (FDP) to the next generation.

Westerwelle once made headlines as the "joker" of the political scene for moving into TV's Big Brother house for a few hours, painting his party's election goal on the soles of his shoes, and coming out of the closet as gay at Merkel's 50th birthday party.

But he found new gravitas when in 2009 he led the FDP to its best-ever national result of just under 15 percent, not far from the 18-percent figure he had scrawled on his footwear.

However since the formation of the centre-right government 18 months ago, it has been riven by infighting over healthcare, energy policy and taxes -- his party's signature issue.

Westerwelle was then dogged by accusations last year that his partner of nearly eight years, Michael Mronz, was accompanying him on official trips to pursue private business interests. Both angrily denounced the charges.

More fundamentally, opponents say Westerwelle lacks the finesse, curiosity and nuance to effectively represent Germany's interests abroad.

"He often lacks the will to understand a problem in all its facets before he makes a decision," the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote last week.

"Diplomats say Westerwelle only wants to know enough so he can take the next step or hold the next press conference."

Admirers hail his formidable skills as a debater but admit he is far better suited for sniping from the opposition benches.

WikiLeaks documents revealed that diplomats from the United States, traditionally among Germany's closest allies, saw Westerwelle as a lightweight who was incompetent, vain and critical of America.

Doubts about his sympathies re-emerged last month when he and Merkel decided Germany would abstain from a United Nations Security Council resolution establishing a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilians.

Germany ended up siding with Russia and China and against its closest partners, the United States, France and Britain, in what many diplomats at home and abroad called a watershed break with post-war foreign policy.

The current issue of news weekly Der Spiegel said Westerwelle, who has led the FDP since 2001, enjoyed the support of only a dismal 24 percent of respondents, far behind Merkel's 58 percent.

In private conversations with journalists, Westerwelle often rails against his mistreatment at the hands of the media, which he says paint whatever decisions he makes negatively.

In recent months, he sounded increasingly weary of bearing the burden of both the party leadership and his ministry.

"I knew it would be this exciting but not this taxing," Westerwelle said in a newspaper interview in late January as momentum developed to see him ousted.

"You really only understand what it means to bear the responsibility of governing when you have done it. You are truly on-duty around the clock."

© 2011 AFP

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