The Other Third Party: The FDP in the German Elections

On 23rd September, the German election propelled Angela Merkel into her fourth term and thirteenth year as Chancellor of Germany. For a time, her main rival and the head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Martin Schulz, looked to rival Germany’s matriarch. The SPD, however, lost 5% of its vote on Sunday and is instead looking to drop out of the ‘grand coalition’ of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) and the SPD in favour of a place in the opposition. If indeed the SPD do pull out of an alliance with Merkel, the only remaining coalition option will be the so-called ‘Jamaica Coalition’, between the CDU (black), the Green Party (green) and the Free Democratic Party (yellow). 

Much has been written about the alarming success of Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), the populist, right-wing and anti-immigrant party that seized 12.6% of votes – mainly in former East Germany – and has taken third place in the Bundestag, the German Parliament. This article will look at the party that may yet take a place in the ruling coalition, despite its chairman, Christian Lindner, denying that option just weeks ago. The FDP also staged something of resurgence in this election, securing 10.7% of votes on Sunday, having failed to reach the 5% threshold to enter parliament in 2013. This is undoubtedly a success for the party, although some – including Lindner –might have expected they would go further, given the charismatic draw of centre-right, forward-facing, and well-marketed politicians and parties across Europe and North America in recent years.

Throughout the summer, posters of Lindner appeared in German cities, looking more like an advert for high-end men’s clothing than the portrait of a statesman. The aesthetic of this campaign and the power of Lindner’s PR machine make comparisons to Macron in France and Trudeau in Canada inevitable. Like them, he is young and photogenic – 38 to Merkel’s 63 and Schulz’s 61. Between events, he live streams from his car. His video advertisements are shot in black and white, featuring edgy stop motion shots of motorways at night and Lindner himself lounging in sneakers and a white t-shirt.

Like Macron, Lindner preaches the benefits of low tax, a pro-business economy, and entrepreneurship and digitalisation (he responded passionately when asked about the failure of his own start-up). Like Trudeau, he is socially liberal, supports gay marriage and is opposed to a surveillance state, although the FDP’s social agenda takes a backseat to the economic message of the party. Lindner offers a middle ground to those for whom Merkel’s refugee policy seems too liberal while the AfD’s closed borders go too far. The FDP supports the offer of asylum to refugees only for as long as their own country is uninhabitable, expects other European countries to pull their weight in the refugee crisis, and otherwise advocates for immigration based on economic need and the skills of migrants.

Lindner has called the FDP a party ‘not for the rich and against the poor, not against the rich and for the poor’ – in other words, for everybody. Despite this ostensible middle-ground position, and the allure of the newcomer that has proven so attractive elsewhere in Western Europe and North America, the FDP achieved only just over 10% of votes. What lies behind this apparent failure in mass appeal?

Firstly, the FDP is not exactly a newcomer. Certainly the party has been reinvigorated, largely by the figure of Lindner, but the party has a long history in the Bundestag, and thus all the public preconceptions that come with this. Particularly after the financial crash in 2008/09 and the European debt crisis, pro-business and ‘risky’ economic modernisation policies were hardly most the priorities of most voters, and consequently, the FDP suffered in these years. As much as Lindner claims that the party is for everybody, the perception of its supporters as entrepreneurs, the self-employed and high-income earners is not something with which everybody can identify.

Secondly, Germans had little reason to fear the rise of an extreme party – the AfD, FDP and Die Linke were polling at around the same level for most of the election campaign. The efficacy and infallibility of polls is increasingly in question, as the German election results have again shown. However, even given the relative success of the AfD, voters were never facing a binary choice between the FDP and the AfD – as was the case in France earlier this year. Macron’s precipitous drop in approval ratings between July and September reveals the extent to which he succeeded not because people supported En Marche or their policies, but simply because they were not the Front National. Equally, despite a disappointing loss (mainly, it seems, to the AfD), there is not a devastating general dissatisfaction with Merkel’s government, who have steered a steady path for the country for over a decade.

The success of any minority party is hindered by the inherent conservatism of the German electoral system. Germans have two votes: one for a local candidate and one for a national party. Germany has 299 voting districts and 299 seats in Parliament for those directly elected in the first vote. Naturally, not every party will have a representative standing in every constituency. Many voters who support a minority party will use their first vote to tactically elect a representative they can tolerate, then their second to back the party with whom they truly identify. The rest of the 598 seats are allocated via the national vote. However, parties that win less than 5% of the national vote are not permitted to send any more candidates than those who triumphed in the direct vote. This system is complicated but ensures a certain degree of moderation and German efficiency in the Bundestag, without splinter parties to hamper policy making. Thus, despite winning 10.7% of the vote on Sunday, no FDP representatives won a directly elected seat.

The FDP did well to return to the Bundestag on Sunday – through a revamped image of the party they inspired zeal in many supporters. However, despite this enthusiasm and the overwhelming success of like-minded parties elsewhere, one might wonder why they did not sweep to third place. Unlike in France and Canada, there was neither the popular discontent with the status quo nor the threat of an extremist swing to the radical-left or to the far-right. The party could not, however much it tried, shake the perception that it represents politics largely for a millennial elite; trendy advertisements only served to reinforce this image. Ultimately, good marketing can only get you so far, it cannot change the product.