By Thorsten Severin
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Free Democrats should not chain themselves to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in next year's election but instead keep their options open for a three-way alliance with the center-left, a senior party member said on Monday.
Wolfgang Kubicki, an outspoken FDP figure from the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, told Reuters that the worst thing the struggling FDP could do ahead of the election was to align themselves exclusively with the conservatives.
The FDP, junior coalition partners in Merkel's center-right government, scored 14.6 percent in the 2009 election but has plunged to around 4 percent in opinion polls - beneath the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in parliament.
"I'd rather see a government with the FDP on the inside than a government with the FDP on the outside," Kubicki told Reuters after the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) formally nominated his college friend Peer Steinbrueck as their candidate for chancellor on Sunday.
"I'm not a prisoner to any one camp," added Kubicki. "The worst thing the FDP could do would be to get caught into a two-camp battle with the conservatives and FDP on the one side versus the Social Democrats and the Greens on the other side."
Kubicki's views are controversial in the FDP and stand in contrast to those of FDP chairman Phillip Roesler, who wants to continue the center-right coalition with Merkel's conservatives if the FDP clears the 5 percent hurdle in September's election.
Kubicki is seen as a rabble-rouser in his party, but he delivered a strong electoral victory this year when he led the FDP in his state to win 8.2 percent - double the level of support in national polls. That result has helped elevate Kubicki's standing nationally.
Merkel is seeking a third term as chancellor but her Christian Democrats (CDU) need a coalition partner.
Opinion polls show neither Merkel's center-right coalition with the FDP nor the center-left opposition of SPD and Greens with enough support to form a majority. The CDU are around 40 percent with the SPD about 10 points behind.
Steinbrueck has ruled out a "grand coalition" with Merkel's conservatives.
Kubicki said that leaves open the door for a three-way alliance of SPD, Greens and FDP, a so-called "traffic light" coalition, named for the parties' red, green and yellow colors.
"Steinbrueck is an intelligent man," said Kubicki, who studied economics with him in Kiel in the 1970s. "If he says he doesn't want a 'grand coalition', then the only other option is a 'traffic light coalition'."
A three-way SPD-Greens-FDP coalition has been tried twice at the regional level. Due to irreconcilable differences, both state governments collapsed prematurely and such an alliance is seen as a long-shot at the federal level.
(Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Noah Barkin)