The last two months have been a giant Kopfschmerz for German chancellor Angela Merkel and her coalition government. On February 20, Social Democrats in Hamburg earned 48.3 percent of the vote, allowing them to govern with an absolute majority. (Merkel's Christian Democrats, by comparison, garnered a measly 21.9 percent.) On March 1, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, until then Germany's most popular politician, resigned from his post after it became evident large portions of his doctoral thesis were plagiarized. (His decision to remove the title "Doktor" from his title was apparently not enough.) Then came the March 27 elections in Baden-Württemberg.
Long a conservative stronghold (and home to automotive giants Mercedes and Porsche), Baden-Württemberg will now be ruled by a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, the latter who won a historic 24.2 percent. But now comes news that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is stepping down both as chairman of the Free Democrats (the junior coalition partner) and as vice chancellor. Not that this should come as a surprise. Westerwelle has long been regarded as a lightweight despite heading the FDP for 10 years. One FDP senior statesman had no reservations when telling me the foreign minister "was doing a terrible job." Another longtime member says "the party doesn't want him," explaining that Westerwelle would have done a better job as finance minister but fell for the trappings of the foreign ministry and because the position was held by his mentor, Hans-Dieter Genscher.
Meanwhile, the Merkel government has been roundly criticized for its abstention vote in the U.N. Security Council during the vote to take action in Libya. In a March 24 Project Syndicate column, former foreign minister Joschka Fischer took the coalition to task:
The ensuing damage for Germany and its international standing is plain to see: never has Germany been more isolated. The country has lost its credibility with the United Nations and in the Middle East; its claim to a permanent seat on the Security Council has just been trashed for good; and one really must fear the worst for Europe.
UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the current mission to protect Libyans, had the explicit or tacit agreement of the Security Council’s five veto-wielding powers. It also had the backing of a majority of the Council, the support of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the open military participation of two Arab states. So what more did the German government need to endorse the intervention?
What use is vocal multilateralism, what use are German leaders’ lofty speeches about international law being exercised by the Security Council, if Germany refuses to endorse a resolution for the protection of Libya’s citizens from a brutal regime employing all means at its disposal in its fight for survival? Nothing. Empty talk. And that will not be forgotten in the region, in the UN, or among Germany’s friends.
When a former radical and Green party chairman is upset you didn't intervene in a foreign country, you must have done something wrong.
Merkel's decision to back away from supporting nuclear power following the disaster in Japan hasn't helped any. (This was particularly frustrating for the FDP, which had to backtrack earlier on tax cuts and now retreat on nuclear energy—apparently the Germans fear a tsunami rising from the North Sea.) But such recent developments have proven of tremendous help to the Greens. If statewide elections were held today, an SPD-Green coalition would likely replace the current arrangement. The FDP, which polled a historic 14.6 percent in 2009, has plummeted below the 5 percent mark—making it ineligible to hold any seat in the Bundestag.
For the CDU and the FDP, there is still some time to pick up the pieces. Elections are still scheduled for the fall of 2013. Come May, the Free Democrats convening in Rostock for their party conference may turn heads by selecting 38-year-old health minister Philipp Rösler as its chairman. Rösler is well regarded and would be the first chairman of a German political party of Vietnamese descent. (The Green party is currently co-chaired by Cem Oezdemir, a German of Turkish descent.) Could Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg make a comeback? Perhaps if he does a stint in the European Parliament first, as some suggest. It is unlikely, however, that he could ever be chancellor—Germans do not take lightly to academic fraud. Guttenberg is still popular, however. There is a Facebook fan page entitled "Against Going After Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg" which boasts more than 400,000 fans.