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Make-or-break month for Merkel’s deputy Roesler

Germany’s deputy chancellor, Philipp Roesler, faces a make-or-break month as head of the Free Democrats, with a key speech to his pro-business party Sunday and elections in his home state of Lower Saxony. Economy Minister Roesler, the first person of Asian origin to serve in a German cabinet, is to give the keynote speech at an annual FDP meeting in south-western Germany, the party’s heartland where it was founded in 1948.

Never an outstanding speaker, Roesler, 39, must reverse a tide of scepticism about whether he has the aptitude to save the party from oblivion in national elections in September. The FDP is stubbornly trailing in polls.

State elections on January 20 in Lower Saxony could seal Roesler’s fate far sooner. The party may poll so weakly that it could be ejected from the parliament of the state, where the FDP is currently part of a coalition with the Christian Democrats, a mirror of the federal coalition it forms with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party. A survey by Infratest-dimap pollsters published Thursday by NDR television showed just 4 per cent of Lower Saxony voters backing the FDP.

Fewer than 5 per cent of votes would mean no representation at all for the FDP, under electoral laws. Support was estimated at 40 per cent for the Christian Democrats, at 34 per cent for the opposition Social Democrats and at 13 per cent for the Greens. In an interview this week with the mass-circulation newspaper Bild, Roesler sidestepped a question about whether he would seek re-election as party leader in May.

“The question of whether I will be running for chairman at the upcoming party congress is not an issue right now. I’ve always said I will proceed step by step. The next step is success in Lower Saxony,” he said. Observers see this as a sign that Roesler may resign if his party suffers a major loss in Lower Saxony, ending his leadership after a tenure of only two years.

In a country where non-white Germans are still unusual enough to draw attention, there has been curiosity about Roesler’s life story. He was adopted by a German couple from a Vietnamese orphanage before his first birthday and was raised by his father, a military officer, after the couple divorced. It was a thoroughly German upbringing: He joined the army too and became a surgeon officer.

On an official visit to Vietnam last year he had to explain that he speaks no Vietnamese. He and his wife Wiebke, married in 2002, have twins and those who know Roesler well praise his intelligence, his witticisms and his modesty. FDP supporters seem to want him out. A Forsa survey Wednesday showed 76 per cent of those who vote FDP want him replaced by Rainer Bruederle, 67, leader of the party’s federal parliamentary caucus.

Bruederle is one of parliament’s best speakers, a master of rough-and-tumble campaigning who once told dpa his secret was to never give up but always return to the fray. As 2012 drew to a close, Roesler drafted a paper advocating privatisation of state-owned corporations and banks and deregulation of labour so that it would be easier to hire and fire workers.

Merkel’s centre-right party is hostile to such changes, and says job security for workers is more important. The FDP, which every January 6 celebrates its record as a bulwark against the left, is now focused on convincing small-business leaders that it is more attuned to their interests than Merkel’s Christian Democrats are.

Roesler is expected to emphasize that message on Sunday in his speech in Stuttgart’s opera house, making what will in effect be a last-ditch appeal to his critics within the party to avoid infighting as they gear up for federal elections. Last week, he rejected a suggestion from Development Aid Minister Dirk Niebel, another senior Liberal, as FDP members call themselves, to separate the jobs of party leader and campaign standard-bearer.

If Roesler were to fall, the ambitious Niebel is expected to seek the FDP leadership. But Bruederle is seen as more capable of uniting the dispirited party, though he might be perceived as a transitional leader on account of his age. A political thoroughbred is waiting in the wings. Christian Lindner, who turns 33 next week, has already been national general secretary of the party, but has withdrawn into provincial politics in North Rhine-Westphalia state, where he proved a successful vote-getter in state elections last year. Ulrich Deppendorf, chief political correspondent of ARD public television, forecast in an informal summing up of the political week that if Roesler loses Lower Saxony, “The next chairman’s name will be Bruederle, or straight away Lindner”.

Jean-Baptiste Piggin, "Make-or-break month for Merkel’s deputy Roesler," Business recorder. 2013-01-04.