Merkel allies aim to stop rot in German polls

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Chancellor Angela Merkel's embattled coalition partners sought Thursday to reverse a disastrous plunge in the opinion polls as a crunch year in German politics looms with seven regional elections.

At the annual conference of the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), party head and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle delivered a fiery speech insisting that Europe's top economy was in better shape due in part to FDP policies.

"Germany is doing better today than before the last election," Westerwelle said to prolonged applause, citing low unemployment and strong economic output.

"There is no country in the world ... that has come out of the financial crisis as well as Germany," Westerwelle said.

"Whoever wants to govern must live up to his responsibilities even when there is resistance. Whoever wants to govern a country must put up with periods of lean times," he said.

"We liberals have the courage to do what is right even if we do not get a pat on the back for it every day."

Amid internal party disputes and quarrels with Merkel's conservatives over a myriad of policy debates, the FDP has dropped below the five-percent hurdle required for representation in Germany's parliament in most polls.

A recent survey, by Forsa for Stern magazine on Tuesday, placed the FDP on four percent with Merkel's CDU party on 34 percent.

The opposition Social Democrats (SPD) polled 24 percent and the high-flying Greens 20 percent.

Less than 18 months ago, however, the picture was very different. In federal elections in September 2009, Merkel swept to a second term on Westerwelle's coat-tails, with the FDP winning a record 14.6 percent.

Despite sniping from some quarters, political analysts do not expect Westerwelle to step down as party chief in the near term and senior party members have rallied behind their under-fire leader in recent days.

Nevertheless, with the first of 2011's seven regional elections looming in Hamburg on February 20, time is running out for Westerwelle to turn the trend around.

And even during a speech in front of the party faithful, there was sporadic heckling and a banner unfurled protesting against a controversial railway construction project, which the FDP supports.

"Westerwelle's days as party head are numbered," said the Frankfurter Rundschau daily on its front page.

© 2011 AFP

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