Why the German Liberals have let their country down

It was the night of 19 November 2017 when Christian Lindner, the chairman of the FDP, the liberal party in Germany, announced that the FDP would withdraw from any further coalition talks, putting German politics in jeopardy. After weeks of negotiations between liberals, greens, and Angela Merkel’s conservatives, in which several hard-earned agreements had already been reached, Mr Lindner and his companions stated they felt their interests were not taken seriously enough. But there may be more to this story.

It all started in 2009. After years of political insignificance, the FDP had finally recovered from scandals and the reputation of being a frivolous party after some over-the-top campaigns that had led nowhere. The then-chairman Guido Westerwelle conduced his party with charisma, extraordinary rhetoric and the promise of tax cuts to a crushing 14.6 per cent on the ballots. Just like between 1982 and 1998, the liberals could join a coalition with the conservatives again, this time under Ms Merkel’s leadership. Already mid-way through the term, the FDP seemed crippled, overwhelmed by the challenges Germany faced at the time and always in the wrong place at the wrong time when the coalition received criticism. Ms Merkel came out almost unscathed, the FDP was fouled up beyond all recognition.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, 2009. Some rights reserved.

Former FDP chairman Guido Westerwelle in 2009

Losing one state election after another was bad enough, but 2013 saw the most catastrophic disaster possible become reality: the liberals only received 4.8 per cent of the votes at the general election and therefore did not cross the five-per cent election threshold. Without any member in parliament, revenue streams dried up and the entire party infrastructure was damaged. Mr Lindner, who served as the party’s secretary general between December 2009 and December 2011 and later as vice chairman, was there to experience the downfall of the FDP at close quarters. And he certainly remembers vividly how the liberals crumbled under Ms Merkel.

The German chancellor is often praised for her iron-lady like character. She usually seems unfazed, even when a stiff wind blows through Berlin and right in her face. Even though Ms Merkel is considered a strong leader—stronger than most of the prime ministers and presidents Europe has seen in past decades—the political elite in Germany is somewhat frightened by the thought of coalising with her, because most likely she will leave in stable condition, while the other party may end up on life support. Ms Merkel is a decent if not great chancellor, and a horrible coalition leader.

Their history might or might not have played a role in Lindner’s decision-making a few weeks ago. He might or might not have intended to settle a score with Ms Merkel, who was not completely innocent in regards to the downfall of Mr Westerwelle and the FDP. If he wanted to take revenge, he did it in the most impactful way. The abrupt end of coalition talks in November marked the first time in what appears to be an eternity that the political future of Ms Merkel was in doubt. She, however, recovered from that hard blow within a few weeks, as only she can do.

Truth to be told, the FDP did not just withdraw from negotiations and give up cabinet positions by choice because feelings were hurt or emotions were out of control. It was revealed after the withdrawal that the party had prepared their social media campaign to defend the decision days beforehand, which of course only shows a level of professionalism. It also hints at an extended thought process that went into it. Again, recent history may provide a hint.

When the liberals suffered a crashing defeat in 2013, it became clear that the party did not possess a large enough voter base that would stick to them even in the wake of failed policy and loss of trust and would lift them above the election threshold no matter what. For decades, the FDP was canvassing for a specific type of voter, the one who hopes for an improvement of their economic position. While it is common that a majority of voters base their decision on the questions of which party may help them and their personal circumstances, it is not the sole cause. In contrary, by focusing on tax and red tape cuts so strongly, the FDP might have attracted the most egoistical voters who simply do not care about ideological concepts and the public good. It helped the liberals when their promises looked credible; it hurt them when they struggled to live up to high expectations. The most egoistical voters move on, not caring one bit about the faith of the party they once supported.

The FDP is still promoting tax cuts and limited government regulation, but recent election campaigns have shown that Mr Lindner and his team are trying to attract a broader voter base. Prior to the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, which is Mr Lindner’s home turf, this past summer the liberals heavily emphasised homeland security as a political matter of importance, in an attempt to benefit from comparatively high crime rates in the state. The FDP of old would probably have shied away from that topic and, if at all, promoted privacy and civil liberty instead of an increase of surveillance but, in fact, would have just stuck to tax and economic policy. In the end, the FDP won 12.6 per cent of the votes and joined a coalition with conservative leader Armin Laschet, who had portrayed himself as a law-and-order candidate.


Image courtesy of INSM, 2017, via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

FDP chairman Christian Lindner


In the campaign leading up to the general election in September, Mr Lindner and his party then shifted towards foreign policy and targeted the increasing influence of the European Union as well as the common monetary policy among the Eurozone states. Granted, it was not the only the topic of the FDP election campaign, though it was the one who received the most media coverage and divided the liberals from the other established parties, not named AfD. This brings us to a fascinating point. The AfD (Alternative for Germany) has flourished since its inception in 2013 by attracting a conservative voter base which felt neglected by Ms Merkel’s party. As the AfD is fractured into two wings, one of which led by the nationalist Björn Höcke, the theory the FDP could position itself as a bourgeois alternative to the AfD does not seem too far-fetched. Conservative voters could be more reliable, if Mr Lindner’s party promotes a policy which goes against mass migration.

During the negotiations with conservatives and greens, the one breaking point concerned the rules regarding family reunification of refugees which have entered Germany in the past few years. If the new coalition had agreed on a laissez-faire regulation, it would have meant that additional migrants in the six figures would have had the chance to come to Germany. While the FDP did not oppose family reunification out of a clear dismissal of open boarder policy, it argued that Germany could not ‘handle’ the influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants at the moment, which could still be seen as a way to garner the attention of conservative voters.

All things considered, their arguments for the withdrawal and the decision to remain in opposition during the first term after the FDP’s return to the German parliament are not unreasonable, while it also marks a clear shift in public perception of the party. From 1969 through 1998, the FDP was part of the German government. And while the liberals became the ‘kingslayer’ in 1982 when, under the leadership of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the party ended the coalition with the social democrats mid-term in order to make Helmut Kohl chancellor, the FDP has been considered a party which would agree to compromises, even if it hurts its credibility, to build a government and keep the country stable. Mr Lindner and the people surrounding him decided to play hardball which is risky, but there are clear motives, and only future elections can tell if it was the wrong call.

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