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Free Democrats pin hopes of survival on new leader

Bonn - "New beginning - new opportunities", said the upbeat slogan above the stage. But most were less hopeful for the future of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), junior partners in Helmut Kohl's government coalition, who yesterday ended their edge-of-extinction party conference in the west German town of Mainz, writes Steve Crawshaw.

"Adieu FDP!" said the main headline in Die Woche. The logo for the reports on German television news, too, suggested that time was running out: the FDP was depicted as sand running through an hourglass.

The party elected itself a new leader to replace the Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, who finally threw in the towel after a succession of electoral defeats. But it is unclear whether Wolfgang Gerhardt, 51, can do any better than his predecessor and former boss.

Mr Gerhardt represents reliability and dependability, but charisma is not seen as his strong suit. Jurgen Mollemann, his challenger for the leadership - generally seen within the party as a troublemaker - gained a third of the delegates' votes, not least because he seemed to offer an energetic alternative. Even though Mr Gerhardt was seen as the party's last hope, he gained only 57 per cent - less than any of his recent predecessors.

The party has failed to gain a parliamentary seat in all but one of 12 regional elections in the past two years. Recent success by the Greens has magnified the FDP's difficulties. Further regional elections are scheduled, and may bring more disappointments. Berlin goes to the polls in the autumn, and the FDP's chances do not look good. The latest national polls suggest that the majority of voters believe that "the FDP is no longer necessary".