Not long ago German conservatives worried that Angela Merkel would have to stand for re-election without a coalition partner. But the business-friendly FDP is back, thanks to a man many had written off.
Free Democratic Party leader, and Angela Merkel's Vice-Chancellor, Philipp Rösler may have reason to celebrate on Sunday, regardless of the result of the election in Germany's most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia.
On that day exactly one year ago, he was elected as the successor to Guido Westerwelle at an FDP party conference in Rostock. While the German foreign minister was seen as an obsolete model, Rösler, who became Economy Minister on the same day, was viewed as the great hope for the future.
Around 95 percent of the delegate bestowed their trust in the doctor. But just a few months later, rumors of a putsch against Rösler were already in circulation.
In the run-up to the election in NRW, where a fifth of the German population lives, news magazine Der Spiegel cited an anonymous FDP source saying, "Rösler should go."
That sort of talk has long been widespread behind the scenes in government circles in Berlin, but no-one was prepared to say it publicly. And after the FDP managed to defy the odds and retain eight percent of the vote in the Schleswig-Holstein election last Sunday, Rösler's downfall now seems even less likely.
Lindner's perplexing resignation
This reversal of fortune, following a succession of bruising electoral defeats, could be consolidated in North Rhine-Westphalia, where polls suggest the FDP could secure a six percent share of the vote - enough to retain seats in the state parliament.
Only a few weeks ago, it was a forgone conclusion that the FDP would fail to clear the five-percent hurdle. The man responsible for the breathtaking upswing is the party's former General Secretary Christian Lindner. The 33-year-old unexpectedly resigned from office only a few days before last Christmas. His reason for doing so remains unclear. Lindner himself said that there were times when a man must give up his place, "to make a new dynamic possible." But the party and the public were perplexed.
Many speculate that Lindner no longer trusted his erstwhile colleague Rösler to implement badly-needed policy changes that they had both agreed on. Both of them wanted to move away from what they saw as a one-sided focus on the economy and low taxation, which Westerwelle had propagated at the expense of all else.
But Rösler stuck to the core of Westerwelle's strategy, though less obtrusively than his predecessor. Lindner may have viewed this course, termed "growth" by Rösler, as more of a change of labels than a substantial new start, though he resisted saying so out loud.
New elections as opposed to new debt
For two long years, Lindner had justified and defended FDP policy: "I have actively participated in difficult times," he said. Some said these were words of resignation, of failure, of a man who had seen his leader procrastinate and waver.
But now he has made a comeback after just a few months, albeit made possible by the collapse of the North Rhine-Westphalian minority government, made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens. The FDP were also partly responsible for the collapse, because they opposed the proposed budget by the state government due to the planned borrowing of billions of euros.
In light of the dramatic situation in which the FDP found themselves, most political observers were united: the FDP would be wiped out in the ensuing election. Now it looks as though they could achieve the impossible, led by Lindner.
It would be a big step on the long road back to credibility, the most important part of which seems to have been self-criticism. As an example, Lindner said that in his opinion the party had stuck to the promise of lowering taxes for far too long. But the sovereign debt crisis in Europe has fundamentally changed the economic situation.
A question of credibility
In this context, in an interview with weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Lindner made a slightly indirect comment: "Behaving appropriately is a mark of professionalism." The new hope for the future of the party would never admit that his comments were aimed at FDP leader Rösler, but it is clear he understands the position his party is in. A good result in North Rhine-Westphalia would grant the FDP and its leaders space to breathe. But with the general elections planned for 2012, that space would be limited.
Since national opinion polls suggest the FDP are still unpopular, with the procrastinator Rösler remaining deeply unsympathetic to voters, the decisive question will soon be posed again: Who should lead the FDP in the national elections?
Even if Lindner denies his own personal ambitions, he will have to position himself at some point. Those who would like Lindner succeed Rösler this year can already be heard in government circles in Berlin. That shows that even before this Sunday's election, Lindner has made his mark.
Author: Marcel Fürstenau / hw
Editor: Ben Knight