Merkel’s coalition partners face leadership battle

* German FDP party likely to dump leader on Monday

* Vice Chancellor Westerwelle blamed for erosion of support

* No snap election like in 2005 expected

By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN, April 3 (Reuters) – Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Free
Democrat (FDP) coalition partners face an ugly leadership battle
on Monday that should cost Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle
his job as party leader and may even shake the government.

But the power struggle to control the slumping FDP that has
weighed on Merkel’s centre-right coalition is unlikely to lead
to an early election the way her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder
of the Social Democrats (SPD) ended up out of power in 2005.

Westerwelle, widely blamed for the FDP’s plunge in support,
is expected to announce he will step aside as FDP chairman at a
party executive meeting on Monday after one last try to hang on.
He will fight hard to stay Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor.

“We’ve got to restore our credibility,” Health Minister
Philipp Roesler told Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday.

Roesler, 38, is the head of the FDP in Lower Saxony and
considered a favourite to replace his erstwhile mentor along
with FDP deputy party leader Christian Lindner, 32. Both were
loyal to Westerwelle but distanced themselves in recent days.

Westerwelle has for months been under enormous pressure to
bow out from within his party, junior partners in the coalition
led by Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). The FDP has suffered
a string of humiliating regional election defeats since 2009.

Polls show Westerwelle is the most unpopular politician in
Germany even though foreign ministers are usually the most
popular figures in Germany. He hoped to hang on until an FDP
executive meeting on April 11 on the party’s future direction.

But the timetable has been accelerated against his will.

“The FDP has suffered an unparalleled loss of credibility
since they re-entered the government in 2009 and their misery is
due to one person: Westerwelle,” said Manfred Guellner, head of
Forsa polling institute.

“Every post-war foreign minister before him enjoyed public
high standing,” Guellner added. “But with Westerwelle people
just say ‘he’s not up for the job’.”

NO SNAP ELECTION EXPECTED

Westerwelle has rejected calls to resign even though the FDP
has fallen to or below 5 percent in polls from 14.6 percent in
the 2009 federal election. The FDP also stumbled in state
elections in 2011, failing to win seats in two state assemblies.

When Schroeder’s SPD and their Greens partners lost control
of key states in 2005 in similar fashion to the centre-right’s
demise this year, he called a snap federal election.

But Merkel is not expected to do the same for three reasons:
her CDU is not as unpredictable as the SPD; the situation is not
as bleak in the upper house of parliament as it was for the SPD;
and Merkel is not a gifted campaigner as Schroeder was.

With a growing number of regional FDP leaders and even
former backers now rebelling against the man blamed for the
party’s slide, Westerwelle will almost certainly announce on
Monday he will not run again as leader at a congress in May.

But that may not be enough and his jobs as foreign minister
and vice chancellor could also possibly be in jeopardy if the
meeting on Monday (starts at 0700 GMT) turns ugly.

“The party will not accept it if we don’t make changes on
Monday,” Daniel Bahr, head of the FDP in Westerwelle’s home
state of North Rhine-Westphalia, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine
Sonntagszeitung newspaper on Sunday.

The erosion of support for the FDP has hurt and
de-stabilised Merkel’s coalition. Fearing election defeats, the
FDP has been highly sceptical about euro zone rescue measures
and did a U-turn on nuclear power after the Japan disaster.

But all that did not help. Merkel’s CDU lost control of the
conservative state of Baden-Wuerttemberg last week for the first
time in 58 years, largely because the FDP was so weak.

Westerwelle also has been widely criticised at home after
Germany broke ranks with its allies the United States, France
and Britain in abstaining on a U.N. vote authorising the use of
force to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and protect civilians.

“Under normal circumstances he doesn’t have a chance,” said
Gerd Langguth, Bonn University political scientist. “But you
never know with Westerwelle. If he resigns as party leader, it’s
a slippery slope and I doubt he can stay foreign minister.”

The FDP’s shakeup on Monday could also possibly cost Economy
Minister Rainer Bruederle, 65, his job. Roesler is reportedly
eager to become economy minister with Bahr, now deputy health
minister, likely to be the next health minister.

Merkel’s coalition partners face leadership battle