Merkel ally’s resignation may come as a relief

* Westerwelle holds onto ministry post for now

* Source says his departure met by sense of relief

* Merkel’s coalition with FDP has been fraught
By Stephen Brown and Eric Kelsey

BERLIN, April 4 (Reuters) – The resignation of Angela
Merkel’s main coalition partner Guido Westerwelle as leader of
the Free Democrats could be a relief for Germany’s chancellor,
who may also need a new foreign minister if his party ousts him.

One government source spoke of a sense of relief in Berlin
that Westerwelle had accepted “the inevitable” by resigning as
head of the FDP, junior partner in Merkel’s coalition, after
state election failures and a long-simmering internal revolt.

Westerwelle also relinquished his post as deputy chancellor,
which generally goes with the leadership of the second force in
the ruling coalition, but hoped to hang onto his cabinet post.

However, it was unclear whether his low popularity ratings
and the dissatisfaction in the FDP would leave enough support to
remain foreign minister — where the 49-year-old has not shone.

Westerwelle was embarrassed by Wikileaks of U.S. diplomatic
cables last year calling him vain and arrogant and has been
criticised for isolating Germany within NATO with the abstention
from a U.N. vote authorising military action over Libya.

“It’s good for Merkel because Westerwelle has lost so much
trust in his party she could not be sure they would follow the
government’s lead, which would be very damaging,” said Gero
Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University.

With German coalition politics requiring whoever leads the
junior partner to Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) to hold a
suitably senior cabinet post, it was possible that Westerwelle
or the FDP Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle could be removed.

Dirk Schumacher, senior European economist at Goldman Sachs,
said in a research note it was too soon to say what implications
Westerwelle’s departure would have on the government, “not least
as the CDU is also struggling to find out what lessons should be
learned from the losses in the recent regional elections”.

USING IT TO HER ADVANTAGE

State election defeats last year cost Merkel her majority in
the upper house of parliament or Bundesrat and the government
suffered a fresh humiliation in the conservative heartland of
Baden-Wuerttemberg on March 27 at the hands of the Greens.

This cast a cloud on Merkel’s own leadership of the CDU, but
she may be able to shift some of the blame onto the regional
party leadership and the FDP’s poor performance. Westerwelle’s
resignation could help her draw a line under the episode.

Westerwelle said giving up the job he has held for a decade
was made easier by the presence of “a whole number of young
personalities ready to take over the leadership of the party”.

The favourites to replace him as party leader of the FDP —
and therefore as deputy chancellor — are 38-year-old Health
Minister Philipp Roesler and FDP Secretary General Christian
Lindner, who is 32.

“Merkel can only use Westerwelle’s resignation to her
advantage if she is able to find someone new with whom she can
govern,” said Gerd Langguth, a political scientist at Bonn
University and a Merkel biographer.

One FDP rebel last year called Westerwelle a “millstone
round the neck” of the party. He weighed on the popularity of
the coalition, ranking as Germany’s most unpopular politician
and oversaw the FDP’s sharp decline in opinion polls.

EUROSCEPTIC ELEMENTS

After leading it to a record 14.6 percent of the vote in the
2009 elections that got Merkel re-elected, Westerwelle was then
unable to stop the rot as the FDP tumbled in opinion polls to 5
percent, the threshold for getting a seat in parliament.

Calling itself the “Liberal” party but nicknamed the “party
of doctors and dentists” by those who argue it just represents
the affluent, the FDP tried to renew its appeal by talking tough
on funding bailouts for Germany’s struggling euro zone partners.

But Werner Hoyer, an FDP junior minister under Westerwelle,
told Reuters last week that eurosceptic voices in the party were
isolated, it would back euro rescue schemes and “there will be
no German nationalist regression in the FDP.” [ID:nLDE72U1LK]
As the FDP has come to look less attractive as a partner,
the Greens — benefiting from anti-nuclear sentiment to oust the
CDU from power in Baden-Wuerttemberg, a conservative bastion for
six decades — could be a long-term solution.

The CDU and Greens have already tried cohabitation at state
level in Hamburg, which fell apart. However, Merkel’s U-turn on
nuclear power after the Japanese earthquake could yet make that
an option in time for the next federal elections in 2013.

With the CDU turning greener and the Greens showing they can
appeal to conservatives, Merkel could attempt to break up the
traditional Social Democrat-Greens alliance, though Neugebauer
cautioned it would be “very difficult to sell within her party”.
(Additional reporting by Thorsten Severin, Andreas Rinke and
Christiaan Hetzner; writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by
Elizabeth Fullerton)

Merkel ally’s resignation may come as a relief