The Free Democrats are eager to get back into government after years in the political wilderness. They're looking to leader Guido Westerwelle, whose task it is to sell the party's business-friendly policies to voters.
The FDP's Westerwelle aims to prove politics can be fun
Since Rhineland native Guido Westerwelle took over the reins of the Free Democrats (FDP) in 2001, the election defeats that had become distressingly common for the liberal party began to be the exception rather than the rule. The FDP began returning to power on the regional level and is currently part of the governing coalitions in several federal states. Since 2004, the FDP is once again represented in the European Parliament.
Guido Westerwelle in 1984 at a conference of the "Young Liberals"
Westerwelle, although still a youngster in the political world at 43 years of age, is considered an institution in his party. He joined the FDP at the tender age of 19 and three years later became the federal chairman of the party's youth wing, the Young Liberals. He credits himself with having turned a group of "lamblike servants" into a "critical youth organization."
In 1994, Westerwelle, a lawyer, became FDP general secretary and in this role began to do all he could to rid the party of its traditional image -- that of kingmaker, which helped the big parties building majority governing coalitions.
Since Westerwelle has had the party's top job, he has tried to present the liberals as an independent and progress-oriented organization. However, he has not been immune from criticism, which was especially acute after the 2002 federal elections.
While the FDP generally gets from six to nine percent of the vote at the ballot box, the party made a concerted effort to get into the big leagues three years ago. It set a goal of 18 percent and pushed that number as hard as it could in its colorful campaign.
Guido Westerwelle presenting his "Guidomobil," part of the 2002 election's "fun" strategy that misfired
The strategy that was launched during the campaign aimed to remake the party's image. The task was to communicate that the FDP was youthful, dynamic and "fun" -- not just the party of high-earning business professionals. In hindsight, it was judged a serious tactical error and in the end, the party fell far short of its 18 percent goal.
Westerwelle's own image also suffered along with that of the party due to a scandal at the start of the election campaign, in which a high-profile state party leader, Jürgen Möllemann, was accused of making anti-Semitic comments at the beginning of the election campaign. The scandal tore through the FDP and resulted in the death -- thought to be a suicide -- of Möllemann. As a result, the party lost the trust of many voters.
Still, Westerwelle proved himself, even in the midst of such troubles, to be pugnacious and possess a certain calculated optimism.
"The old cliché was wrong and the new one is also incorrect. We have good policies, serious goals and a respectable election platform, but we present them with the needed amount of optimism and lightheartedness," he said at one point. "I am an optimistic Rhinelander and I believe that if you want to convince people to take a different path, you certainly don't do that by yelling out 'the end is near!'"
Commitment to Angela Merkel
During the last federal elections, Westerwelle refused to make a commitment about a coalition in the case of a change in government. This time, however, as likely early elections in the fall approach, the FDP's desires are much clearer: it wants to enter into government with the conservative Union bloc.
The FDP has been sitting in the parliament's opposition benches since 1998, but has never wanted to get used to that particular seating order, especially since for years they had been part of government, either as partners with the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union or with the Social Democrats.
Westerwelle with CDU head Merkel
"I believe that Angela Merkel would make a very good chancellor," said Westerwelle in comments about the upcoming elections and the Union's campaign for the chancellery. "However, I also believe that the liberals can ensure that the conservatives have the courage to make the important changes the country needs." If the FDP enters into a governing coalition, Westerwelle says the party will argue for a simplified, fairer tax system, promote new technological developments and, above all, reduce Germany's Byzantine bureaucracy.