FDP want party man to replace German minister

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The Independent Online
THE Free Democratic Party, the junior partner in Germany's ruling coalition, stressed yesterday that a new Economics Minister would come from within its ranks and be a professional politician.

The party set itself firmly against calls from business leaders and other political parties for a successor to Jurgen Mollemann to be chosen for competence rather than party affiliation.

However, the two men at the centre of speculation over who will replace Mr Mollemann - who resigned on Sunday over a scandal involving abuse of his office - both have a strong economic grounding, suggesting that the FDP has taken to heart powerful criticism of its three previous incumbents as lightweights.

With the western German economy already in trouble, and the costly kick-start programme for eastern Germany so far showing only modest results, the importance of a strong hand at the economics ministry has increased significantly .

Speculation that the post could go to someone like Birgit Breuel, the tough and respected head of the Treuhand privatisation agency for eastern Germany and a member of the Christian Democrats, was dismissed by the FDP. It emphasised that binding coalition agreements meant the economics portfolio was theirs alone to dispense with. Senior CDU politicians admitted any attempt to wrest the ministry away from the FDP would place the whole coalition government at risk.

The front-runner to succeed Mr Mollemann is widely regarded to be Gunter Rexrodt, 51, who only narrowly missed getting the economics job the last time round. The FDP politician, who has been Finance Senator in Berlin and chairman of Citibank Germany, is currently the member of the Treuhand board in charge of textiles, agriculture and construction. Another potential candidate is Walter Hirche, the FDP Economics Minister of the eastern state of Brandenburg, who was previously the Economics Minister in Lower Saxony.

The new appointment, which is expected to be announced at the end of this week, will become part of a broader, mid-term cabinet reshuffle which Chancellor Helmut Kohl had been planning for the end of the month. With his centre- right coalition's popularity sagging in the opinion polls, Mr Kohl is keen to use the occasion to restore a sense of purpose and direction to his governing team.