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How Much for a Half-Percent?

Germany, on the verge of regime change.

8:25 PM, Sep 15, 2005 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Bonn

CRITICS OF GERMANY'S FREE DEMOCRATIC PARTY have derisively joked that the "F" in FDP stands for "fun" and that the "Fun Party" only tells voters what they want to hear. But what if it turned out the party really did know how to have a good time? The only way to find out was by attending their last official rally before Sunday's national elections.

The event started out promisingly enough at Bonn's museum of art--the site for a pre-rally fundraising reception. High-end supporters mingle with party leaders amid the Kölsch beers (a Bonn specialty) and stuffed salmon pastries. Some of these donors are long-time FDP members, others are young business entrepreneurs. There is no limit to the amount one person can give (the record for the FDP was set in 1983 by an owner of warehouses who donated about 6 million Deutsche marks). Parties must publicly disclose, however, when someone gives more than 10,000 euros. And under no circumstance can anyone offer cash. Some years ago, officials at FDP's main headquarters discovered an envelope containing 1,010 DM, cash. After careful deliberations, it was decided the money must be presented to the German president who serves as an arbiter in such delicate matters. Had the party members kept it, they would have violated the law, even if the cash was anonymous. (The whole affair turned out to be a set-up: An unnamed individual later phoned the FDP asking what they did with the cash.) Despite such fortunes, the FDP as well as the Christian and Social Democrats have all been embroiled in one campaign finance scandal or another. "It is a dirty business," says one German political consultant.

Applause erupts an hour into the museum reception when the chairman of the Free Democrats, Guido Westerwelle (with his life partner in tow), and the head of the FDP's parliamentary group, Wolfgang Gerhardt, walk into the room. The grip and grins break out and excitement fills the air. Or is it nervousness? "It's going to be a very close election," says Udo Stein, a local political coordinator. "But in the end," he hopes, "our side will prevail." Silvana Koch-Mehrin, an FDP member of the European parliament, believes the election will produce a victory for her party, though she too thinks it will be by a narrow margin. And then I run into Wolfgang Gerhardt himself, a man who, if the "Black-Yellow" coalition wins on Sunday, will be named Germany's foreign minister to replace Joschka Fischer. How optimistic is he about Super Sonntag?

Gerhardt pauses a second before saying, "I believe that on Sunday our side will be ahead." Not exactly an overwhelming endorsement but perhaps realistic. According to the last available poll by Infratest dimap, the CDU (and its Bavarian partner CSU) has dropped another two points to 41 percent. The SPD has increased its numbers to 34 percent. But the parties need to create a coalition by joining with one of the smaller parties. The FDP remains at 6.5 percent while the Greens are at 7 percent. A ruling majority in the Bundestag does not, however, mean achieving 51 percent. Taking into consideration some 3 percent of Germans who will vote for fringe groups such as the extreme right and the "gray" party (representing the elderly), the coalition partners will only need a total share of 48 or 49 percent. Based on the latest poll, the Black-Yellow coalition is teetering at 47.5 percent.

But what if the Free Democrats were to prevail and Wolfgang Gerhardt were to become foreign minister (in coalitions with the CDU, this position has traditionally gone to the Free Democrats)? What would he say to his counterpart Condoleezza Rice? "I would tell her how important is our working together and the need for multilateral decisions."

THE GUESTS ARE QUICKLY USHERED OUTSIDE to a tent-covered Platz where the rally is set to commence. City councilman Joachim Stamp introduces one FDP official after another, brings out party legends Hans Dietrich Genscher and Otto Graf Lambsdorff (who have a combined age of almost 160 years), and then introduces Gerhardt, who gives a spirited defense of the FDP platform. In case you forget what that includes, the projection screens behind him are there to remind you: "The Power of Freedom." "You Can Renew Germany." "More FDP, Less Taxes." (The messages are in stark contrast to a 1961 placard I saw at another museum, which read, "A Holiday Is No Luxury! More holidays. A minimum of four weeks. SPD."