Can the FDP find the will to survive?

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The Independent Online
ON SUNDAY night Germany's Free Democrats (FDP) popped the champagne corks to celebrate their electoral survival. After repeatedly failing to gain parliamentary seats in regional elections in recent months, the centrist party scraped through, with 7 per cent of the federal vote, two points more than the minimum.

The FDP could not be buried, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democrat-led coalition were safe - for the moment.

In the cold light of day, even the optimists admit that there is little cause for celebration. The FDP is not dead, but it is, although still in government, comatose. It is unclear whether the party - which used to play a crucial balancing role between left and right - can ever recover.

The in-fighting has begun in earnest. The regional decline of the FDP has continued. In three state elections on Sunday, the FDP failed to be returned to parliament. Given that the decentralised German political system depends heavily on the 16 Lander (states), this weakness could prove fatal.

The party has an opulent headquarters in the centre of Bonn, completed last year in time for the impending move to Berlin. But the series of regional disasters leaves the FDP like a fish out of water. Currently, it holds the foreign, justice, economics and construction ministries in Bonn. It is likely to lose at least one of those. More importantly, the party itself is -in the words of Otto Lambsdorff, a former leader of the party - in 'existential danger'.

For the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), the weakness of the FDP has clear advantages since it makes the government's slim majority even more vulnerable. The problems of the FDP create double trouble for Mr Kohl. On the one hand, the party of dead souls within the government adds little to the credibility of the coalition itself. On the other, if the FDP rediscovers the will to survive, then it may reinvent itself as a party of radical liberal principles, clearly distanced from the CDU - an image that has largely vanished in recent years.

If the FDP is to 'give itself profile' - to use the current party buzzword - then it will need to vote against its CDU big-brother partner, to show how brave and different it can be. That, in turn, could hasten the collapse of the Government itself. In short: the FDP's only hope of survival may be to saw off the branch that it is sitting on.

If the FDP abandons the CDU ship and defects to the Social Democrats, then the SPD could form a red-yellow- green 'traffic-light coalition' - the SPD, together with the yellow FDP and the Greens. It was the FDP's defection from the SPD that unseated Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and brought Mr Kohl to power 12 years ago.

At a special licking-of- wounds party conference in December, the current FDP leader and German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, will be under considerable pressure. Since the departure from centre stage of the former foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the party's prestige has plummeted. But, even if Mr Kinkel is dumped, the FDP has few alternatives.

Jurgen Mollemann, a former economics minister, has become a regular supplier of media soundbites, with calls for internal 'renewal' - including more power for himself. But he was forced to resign as minister over corruption allegations in January 1993, so he can hardly be seen as the party's hidden asset.