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Meteoric ascent

May 13, 2011

A string of policy missteps by Free Democrat party leader Guido Westerwelle and a recent state election debacle for his FDP have paved the way for the meteoric political ascendency of Philipp Rösler.

Philipp Rösler confering with party colleagues
Philipp Rösler: party leader pro tem?Image: dapd

The Vietnam-born rising star Philipp Rösler was overwhelmingly elected to lead Germany's Free Democrats (FDP) on Friday, the first day of the official FDP party conference in Rostock.

Some 95 percent of Rösler's party colleagues voted for him, bringing to a close the 10-year FDP chairmanship of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Rösler also takes over the role of vice-chancellor, the official number two in Chancellor Angela Merkel's government.

Merkel had reshuffled her cabinet on Thursday at the request of the Free Democrats, the junior partner in Germany's coalition, with Rösler taking over the post of economics minister from his party cohort, Rainer Brüderle. Rösler had previously held the health portfolio.

It has been a phenomenal rise for Rösler, who has given himself seven more years as party chairman or government minister. Not because his party has instituted an age limit, but because Rösler himself has said on more than one occasion that he intends to leave politics at the age of 45 and do something else.

Rösler is currently 38, but he is not even sure on what day he was born. His official birthday - February 24, 1973 - was subsequently determined by the German authorities.

Rösler was born in Vietnam and his biological parents, it is presumed, were killed there during the war. Someone then gave the baby to a Catholic orphanage in Saigon, and at the tender age of nine months he was adopted by a German couple and sent to Germany.

Rösler (r) with his mentor and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (l)
The FDP is hoping Rösler (here with Guido Westerwelle) can stem the downward spiral of its political fortunesImage: dapd

A normal German childhood

"How much Asia is in Philipp Rösler?" was a question put to Rösler by the German paper Bild am Sonntag when he became health minister in November 2009.

His answer: "Narrower eyes, a flatter nose, black hair." He said that he had had a totally normal, German upbringing, including the fact that his adoptive parents soon separated.

Rösler grew up with his father, a career soldier in the German army, taking regular meals in the officer's mess. Later, he became a soldier himself, serving as a medical officer in the Bundeswehr.

After studying medicine at Hanover Medical School, Rösler worked full-time as an army doctor until 2003.

His political career, at this point, consisted of a few volunteer positions in the FDP, but his rise was meteoric. He joined the party in 1992. Eight years later, he was already secretary-general of the FDP in the state of Lower Saxony.

Rösler proved to be a talented public speaker and communicator, and not a ruthless, elbow-jabbing careerist. He was attracted to medicine initially because he wanted a job dealing with people, but he said that in practice there was too much paperwork and too little time to treat patients.

"I said to myself: now you can go straight into politics and get rid of those silly laws," Rösler said in an interview.

Rainer Brüderle (l) with Philipp Rösler
Rösler takes the economics portfolio from Rainer BrüderleImage: dapd

Health portfolio a hot seat

One could imagine that, as a family man, Rösler could have been fully satisfied with the policy-shaping possibilities of being Lower Saxony's economics minister - a post he assumed in early 2009. He would have stayed in Hanover with his wife, Wiebke, also a doctor, and their two-year-old twin girls.

But then came the big gains of his party at the polls in the general election of September 2009.

Rösler, a member of the FDP national leadership since 2005, was handed the Health Ministry portfolio. It seemed a natural fit for someone who had been practicing medicine, but politically the post has a reputation for being a hot seat - big budgets and influential lobbyists fighting for a chunk of that money.

Not unexpectedly, Rösler lost a few feathers. There was criticism from his fellow physicians, from the pharmaceuticals industry, and from the public, complaining about cuts in service coupled with higher premiums.

The minister had to compromise, but he did a fairly decent job, considering his was "the toughest job the republic had to offer," as he put it.

A number of other FDP politicians must have felt the same way and thought that Rösler had what it takes to be party chairman.

But Rösler was very hesitant about taking over the helm from party leader Guido Westerwelle, his mentor for many years - and not because of any feigned humility.

"If I ever got the impression that politics was hurting my family, I would quit immediately," he said. Philipp Rösler now has seven years, until he is 45, to shovel a few more coals into the fire.

Author: Michael Gessat / gb
Editor: Martin Kuebler