Merkel allies fall from kingmakers to laughing stock

BERLIN Tue Sep 20, 2011 12:32pm BST

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BERLIN (Reuters) - In a new hit German comedy about how men make fools of themselves in the pursuit of women, the worst insult comes from a 30-year-old venting anger at a rival.

"You FDP voter you!" shouts the character, spitting out the initials of the Free Democratic Party with such disdain it has audiences rolling with laughter. The gag is well understood from the Black Forest to the Baltic.

There is no more telling illustration of the dramatic fall suffered by the party than seeing its initials used as an insult in Germany's most popular current movie "Maennerherzen 2" (Men in the City 2) -- watched by about 500,000 people when it opened last weekend.

The FDP has been the junior coalition partner to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives since 2009. But their weakness is destabilising her government at the mid point before the next federal election due in 2013.

"It is without doubt the most difficult situation the FDP has ever been in," said party chairman Philippe Roesler after the party suffered a humiliating defeat in a regional election in Berlin on Sunday -- plunging to a record low of 1.8 percent.

The FDP was once Germany's king-maker party -- coalition partner in more post-war governments than any other party. It has spent 43 of the last 63 years in coalitions with either Merkel's centre-right Christian Democrats or the centre-left Social Democrats.

But now the FDP, which is in essence a centrist party that supports free markets and liberal views, has crashed towards oblivion with a string of defeats in regional elections. This year the FDP failed to clear the five percent threshold needed for seats in five of seven state assemblies up for the vote.

Sometimes disparaged as "the party of doctors and dentists" because of its lobbying for those and other special interests, the FDP fell to a new post-war law on Sunday in the Berlin regional election. This has provoked soul-searching within the party but also spawned jokes outside about its demise.

Pundits noted that the number of invalid ballots in the Berlin election (26,000) was nearly as high as the FDP's total (27,000). Interest in the FDP was so miniscule that the party held their final campaign rally in Berlin inside party headquarters in front of a handful of spectators.

"Dear FDP -- please do us all a favour and disappear," said stand-up comedian Ades Zabel in a popular internet appeal on a German-language social network. "You're not needed anymore. We can't stand you any more."

Another popular song called "Ich habe nie FDP gewaehlt" (I never voted for the FDP) is the ironic chronicle of the life of a man who makes a lot of mistakes in his life -- but he sings that he at least never voted FDP. "I swear on my life I'll never vote FDP" is the song's refrain.

It is all the more remarkable because only two years ago the FDP got its best post-war result in the federal election -- 14.6 percent. Since then the FDP, which once billed itself as the "Partei der Besserverdiener" (or "higher earners' party"), has plunged to between 3 and 4 percent in national opinion polls.

CATERS TO SPECIAL INTERESTS

"In the eight regional elections since the 2009 federal election, the FDP has lost more than two thirds of the voters it had in 2009," said Manfred Guellner, managing director of the Forsa polling institute.

"Never before in post-war history has a party fallen out of favour as much as the FDP. In Berlin, the FDP got eight of 100 eligible voters in the 2009 federal election but on Sunday only one of 100 eligible voters."

The FDP is disliked by many Germans because of its focus on the interests of the well-to-do. It pushed through a special cut in value-added tax for hotel owners two years ago even though it had campaigned for tax equality, and has been pummelled in the media for this ever since.

Pollsters say voters also dislike the ineffective leadership and abrasive style of the FDP's recently ousted chairman, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, as well as policy lurches this year in a desperate bid to win back voters.

Many blame Westerwelle for isolating Germany in the international community with its abstention in the U.N. Security Council vote authorising military action on Libya. They also were taken aback by Roesler's euroscepticism last week on the eve of the Berlin election.

"The FDP has truly made horrible mistakes -- lobbying on tax policies, Westerwelle being miscast as foreign minister and a whole lot more," wrote the southern Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper in an editorial.

"But right now the FDP is being blamed for everything that's wrong with the world. The party is so badly damaged that it's hard to imagine how they're going to continue governing this country to the next election in 2013."

Westerwelle, the most unpopular foreign minister in recent German history, gave up the leadership of the FDP and the office of vice chancellor in April to Roesler, his former protege. Roesler, 38, has failed to stop the rout.

Westerwelle remains foreign minister even though opinion polls suggest he is the reason voters are deserting the FDP.

Gerd Langguth, a political scientist at Bonn University, said the FDP's crisis could lead to a government crisis. "The FDP's anxiety is going to get worse," he said. "A party in the ruling coalition that can't win at least five percent of the vote to stay in state assemblies can turn into more of a loose cannon."

(Reporting By Erik Kirschbaum, Andreas Rinke and Natalia Drozdiak; Editing by David Stamp)

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