Crisis nears as Kohl's coalition allies sink in a sea of acrimony

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The rare prospect of a German government crisis moved a step closer yesterday, with a senior minister warning that early elections might have to be held if Helmut Kohl's liberal coalition partners continued their slide towards oblivion.

Polls predict that the Free Democrats (FDP) face annihilation in three regional elections which are due in March, leaving them represented in just one of 16 Lander assemblies.

If that happened, the party, which has been in government since 1969, first with the Social Democrats and then with Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU), would feel obliged to pull out of the coalition.

Until now, the conservatives said that in such an event they would try to stay in power as a minority government. But yesterday Theo Waigel, the Finance Minister, said he would urge his members to press for early polls. Mr Waigel heads the Christian Social Union, the CDU's sister party in Bavaria, which forms a united parliamentary bloc with Mr Kohl's MPs in the Bundestag.

Mr Waigel's warning came as the Free Democrats tried to relaunch their party at a traditionally good-humoured conference in Stuttgart at the weekend. But beneath the veneer of bonhomie Germans have come to expect from the party of the educated middle class, the rivalries and ideological battles of recent months were much in evidence.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who resigned before Christmas as justice minister because of the party's new-found obsession with Thatcherite economics at the expense of age-old libertarianism, again tried to thwart the rightward drift. "Any attempt to win votes for the FDP purely in the conservative and right-wing camp by concentrating on tax and economic policy is a zero-sum game, which would bring the coalition no more votes," she said on the eve of the conference. "The FDP must be an independent liberal political force and should also portray itself as such."

But Wolfgang Gerhardt, the party chairman, reiterated that tax cuts and reduced government spending would remain the FDP's priority. "As long as many people want ... to commit the state to create work, housing and a good living and provide a guaranteed market and subsidies in the economic area, the community cannot be truly free or successful."

Mr Gerhardt is at odds with leading figures of his party. Last month he tried to force out Gunter Rexrodt, the Economics Minister and an FDP colleague, in a transparent attempt to take his place in the government. In his determination to curry favour with Mr Kohl, Mr Gerhardt has also provoked the ire of Klaus Kinkel, the Foreign Minister, who continues to stress an independent role for the FDP in the coalition.

The internal clashes and electoral disasters in the past two years have left the Free Democrats' credibility in tatters, creating a climate in which a vote for them is seen as a vote wasted.

A poll last week indicated more than 60 per cent of Germans thought the Free Democrats were unimportant, a damning verdict for a party that provides three senior members of the government.