Germany's liberal party is stumbling around trying desperately to find a way out of the quagmire of illegal donations and accusations that have reached party leadership and plunged its popularity among voters.
An FDP campaign ploy during happier times
Jürgen W. Möllemann, the charismatic nightmare to his own party, Germany's Free Democrats, received support from an unexpected quarter on Thursday.
The party's honorary chairman Otto Graf Lambsdorff said all party members who knew of or were involved in the controversial funding of an anti-Israeli pamphlet distributed just before September's election should be held responsible.
The leaflet was Möllemann's brainchild, but Lambsdorff pointed out that the distribution of 8 million leaflets "cannot be the work of a single person."
Illegal donations into account
German Liberal Party (FDP) chairman Guido Westerwelle enters the podium at the FDP headquarters in Berlin , Sunday Sept. 22, 2002. The Liberals fell short of reaching their goal of 18 percent, scoring just slightly above seven percent. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
That will be music to the ears of the beleaguered Möllemann (pictured right) who is accused of using undeclared donations to the party to fund the controversial project. The FDP's treasurer, Günter Rexrodt, has said that a total of €840,000 ($844,000) in anonymous donations ranging from €1,000 to €8,000 was paid into an FDP-linked account.
The pamphlet in question featured a picture of Israeli prime minister Sharon, blasting him for sending tanks into Palestinian refugee camps. It also picked a fight with his long-time rival Michel Friedman, deputy leader of the Council of Jews in Germany, whose intolerant and hateful behavior, Möllemann said, were fostering anti-Semitism.
Feds launch official probe
German prosecutors earlier this month opened a probe into Möllemann, who until recently headed the FDP's North Rhine-Westphalia branch, the biggest in Germany. He stepped down following questions over the source of the funds and now faces the threat of expulsion from the party. However, the problems do not end there for the party, with further FDP politicians being sucked into the scandal.
The latest victim is Wolfgang Gerhardt, who currently heads the party's parliamentary group. During his tenure as party chairman in the late 1990s, the FDP parliamentary state and federal groups allegedly paid a number of large donations onto the party's central accounts. Worried that the large amount of money would raise some eyebrows, Gerhardt siphoned off around €153,000 and returned it to the party as a temporary loan.
By doing so, observers say he violated party financing law, which explicitly forbids that money from the parliamentary group coffers be passed on to party accounts.
Meanwhile, in typically fighting fashion Möllemann has said he will not go quietly.
Der Vorsitzende der FDP Nordrhein-Westfalen Juergen W. Moellemann auf einem Archivbild vom 22. Mai 2002 waehrend einer Pressekonferenz in Duesseldorf. Moellemann hat am Sonntag, 20. Oktober 2002 seinen sofortigen Ruecktritt sowohl als NRW FDP Landeschef als auch als NRW FDP Fraktionsvorsitzender erklaert
His remarks are seen as a swipe at the youthful party leader Guido Westerwelle (pictured left), who is attempting to remain above the fray. Political observers say that Westerwelle covertly shares Möllemann's ideological views and his radical ideas for positioning the party better in the public eye.
However, some of those plans backfired in the pre-election period, most notably the campaign to obtain 18 percent of the vote as the FDP struggled to pick up a significantly lower 7.4 percent, effectively ruining its chances of forming a coalition government with the conservative Christian Democrats.
And there was more bad news for the party on Thursday with the release of a poll that showed the FDP just barely scraping past the 5 percent barrier needed to enter parliament if the election were held this Sunday.