The FDP: traditional liberals or ‘subdued populists’?

Coalition partners for much of the Federal Republic’s history, Germany’s Liberals, the FDP, have sailed through rocky waters in the last decade. After a low point in 2013, when the party failed to win enough votes to enter the Bundestag, the FDP bounced back to win 80 seats in 2017. Following the election, Angela Merkel entered into negotiations for a ‘Jamaica coalition’ with the CDU/CSU, Liberals and Green Party. However, party leader Christian Lindner surprised many by breaking off negotiations, saying, “It’s better not to govern than to govern wrongly.” The sticking point in the negotiations was immigration and refugee policy: following Lindner’s statement, a Green politician posted on Twitter that the Lindner had chosen “his own brand of populist agitation over political responsibility.” This is a criticism which has been increasingly levelled at Linder since then.

The end of the Jamaica coalition negotiations sent Merkel back to former coalition partners, the SDP, which in turn set off a prolonged debate in the social democratic party, many of whose members were, like Lindner, sceptical that their party would benefit from coalition.

Christian Lindner
Photo. Kevin Schneider (kschneider2991) / CC0

The FDP has been a coalition partner in federal government for a total of 41 years, meaning that it has often had significant influence in government. As the Deutsche Welle pointed out, “The FDP emphasised its power as kingmaker in 1982, when its ministers abandoned Social Democrat chancellor Schmidt and enabled the rise of the conservative Kohl. FDP Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, together with Kohl, was one of the main architects of German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.”

In 1998, the SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder formed a government with the Green Party and the FDP were left out of government for the first time in 29 years. The party did not return until 2009, when it won 14.6% of the vote and joined Merkel’s second government. But the FDP’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle performed poorly, the party haemorrhaged support, and in 2013, the party won only 4.8%, meaning that it failed to meet the 5% hurdle, and therefore won no Bundestag seats.

The party saw a resurgence under leader Christian Lindner, who has been leader since 2013. In an interview shortly after he took over the leadership at the age of 34, Lindner said that, “the FDP needs a clear political direction again. We are in favour of the social market economy, the rule of law and a tolerant society….The FDP is a party which offers a home to people who want to live independently and are not afraid of responsibility. To do this, they need the state as a partner, but not as a guardian. I see my most important tasks in sharpening this profile and forming a team.”

However, the party has struggled to forge a clear identity and there are a significant number of state and national politicians who disagree with the current direction of the party under Lindner, who has sought to mark out clear ground between the FDP and the CDU and SPD. The re-positioning under Lindner has been seen in some quarters as a move to populism, and in others as a move to the right.

The Zeit commented that, “In the past few months, it has been seen that the FDP under Christian Lindner has made a strategic decision. It has pursued a gentle anti-establishment course and kept an ever greater distance from the ‘mainstream’,” and that, “Provocation became the preferred method….You do not have to call this “right-wing,” because this reorientation was not ideologically driven. Rather, it was about the aesthetics of the protest, the staging as a force of counter-reform, in short, about a form of subdued populism.”

Indeed, the party’s position on the corona regulations has more in common with that of the far right populists, the AfD, than with the CDU or SPD; the FDP argued for a quick exit from lockdown and has been sceptical about the restrictions on daily life.

The party struggled with bad publicity in April when the deputy party leader Katja Suding tweeted, “What is life worth if we let the freedom to live be taken away from us.” As the Spiegel commented, “It sounded as if an omnipotent state had grabbed (freedom).” Moreover, “The FDP is coalition in three state governments which are shutting down public life to protect health.”

Marco Buschmann, the parliamentary manager of the FDP parliamentary group, also caused controversy when he said that the effects of a longer shutdown on the middle class would threaten a “revolution” and deputy leader Wolfgang Kubicki that, “People have to look after themselves. If people are afraid, they should stay at home.”

The Spiegel commented that, “the FDP is reflecting on its liberal roots as a freedom party and is at the forefront of the exit debate…It is an attempt to step into the limelight…at a time where there is less opposition than ever before.”

Such comments, argued the Welt, endanger the party’s image: “The image of the reckless party could cost the FDP trust.” Not only did Lindner fail to correct Kubicki’s controversial remarks, noted the Welt, he himself also used a high-pitched tone from the start of the corona crisis and he called face masks “muzzles” in the debate about easing restrictions.

The party‘s flirtation with populism could be clearly seen during the political crisis in Thuringia in February. The agreement for a minority coalition in Thuringia between the Left Party, SPD and Green Party, was blown apart when CDU and FDP politicians in Thuringia broke ranks and voted with the Alternative for Germany for an FDP Minister President, Thomas Kemmerich. This caused a national outcry (there is a consensus amongst the main parties that they will not cooperate with the AfD) and, after a few days, the resignation of the newly elected Minister President, after pressure from Lindner.

Lindner apologising for the Thuringia affair in the Bundestag

Lindner received criticism for his behaviour during the crisis in Thuringia. Although he subsequently apologised in the Bundestag, saying, “We are ashamed that we have allowed the AfD to mock parliamentary democracy,” the Tagesspiegel commented that immediately after the election of Kemmerich as Minister President, “it sounded as if (Lindner) could live with an FDP prime minister elected with AfD votes. “The regional association acts on its own responsibility,” he emphasized on Wednesday. “Freedom and openness to the world beyond the AfD and the Left Party are our voter mandate.”

Following the crisis, Lindner asked the party executive for a motion of confidence (which he won with a large majority), insisting that the FDP was a party of the middle. But the Tagesspiegel argued that, “Thuringia is a total write-off for the FDP, the matter is very serious….. Many will wonder how the FDP leader was able to say about Jamaica: “Better not to govern than to govern badly” while he was apparently still able to imagine a government that would bring the most radical representative of the right wing, Björn Höcke, of all people, to power.”

Similarly a Tagesschau report entitled ‘Looking right, appearing Liberal?’ commented that although Lindner insisted that the FDP does not cooperate with the AfD, “that’s not true. In the state parliaments of Berlin and Hamburg, FDP members have repeatedly voted for AfD motions. Apparently in the interests of their voters: According to surveys, 75 percent of FDP supporters do not want to rule out cooperation with the AfD. This is the result of a political course that is very open to the right: Liberals have struck right-wing populist tones in recent years, especially in refugee and climate policy.” The report lists examples of a rightwards course being pursued by the party under Linder. This can be seen particularly in the party’s statement on refugee policy and race; Lindner accused Angela Merkel’s politics of leading to “cultural alienation in her own country”; and during the anti-foreigner riots in Chemnitz in the summer of 2018, Wolfgang Kubicki said that the roots of the riots lay in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. Moreover, “when Lindner even called for a committee of inquiry into refugee policy in the Bundestag, one faction in particular was delighted: the AfD.”

The crisis damaged the FDP in the opinion polls, as has the party’s reaction to the corona pandemic. From winning 10.7% in the 2017 election, the party is now polling at around 5-6%.

But perhaps equally as damaging to the party‘s prospects is its lack of direction. Although the party is aiming to establish itself as the party of young, aspirational working class voters, a Zeit article argued that the FDP is intellectually blank: “Much is being written about the recent decline of the FDP. Only: Perhaps Christian Lindner’s one-man show is not the most pressing problem that the liberals have. Perhaps even the fact that the liberals shirked government responsibility in 2017 is not the main reason for their weakness or the brief flirtation between the Thuringian FDP and the AfD at the beginning of this year. And maybe even the Corona crisis, in which a strong state is needed and individual responsibility not so much, is not responsible. The causes of the liberal existential crisis may lie elsewhere. Perhaps the intellectual void that has spread around the FDP weighs more heavily than all the political omissions and strategic mistakes of recent years.”

While the Greens have a clear agenda, the article argues, Lindner recently defined the FDP position in this way: “My goal is to lead the FDP in government responsibility and to achieve something for the country… ‘More opportunities through more freedom’ is the title of the party’s newly revised mission statement….This doesn’t sound like a liberal idea that could grapple with the masses in the face of the threat to democracy from authoritarian political leaders and global capitalism spiralling out of control.”

There has also been some disquiet about Lindner’s dominant role as head of the party. The Taggespiegel reported that by the party conference in September, Linder is expected to take a step back, and no longer appear as the main speaker and sole figurehead of the FDP. Lindner wanted to be “deliberately quieter.”

Spreading the limelight amongst a range of figures is part of the strategy, argues the Tagesspiegel, to re-enter government following next year’s election: “The Free Democrats want to achieve this with classic FDP politics. If the consequences of the economic crisis are felt more strongly in autumn and the currently suspended “obligation to file for bankruptcy” applies again for companies, a “wave of bankruptcies” could roll through the country, the Liberals believe. Then a business party will be more in demand than ever, is the hope.”

Party members have been unwilling to publicly disagree with Lindner, the man who re-energized the party after 2013. The Zeit commented that, “Most Liberals have drawn two lessons from the fact that the party fell out of the Bundestag in 2013 and Christian Lindner led them back in. Public dissent is harmful. And dissent with Lindner is fatal. In the party of individualists things should be harmonious…..Lindner deserves respect, everyone says. Lindner bears a lot of responsibility. Lindner has to bring everything together. Lindner is number one. The only problem is that number one is leading the liberals towards five percent.”

Does Linder speak for his party? The Zeit argues that, “There are politicians who see liberalism differently than Christian Lindner does, who speak very differently to how the FDP is currently speaking.” The main problem these politicians face is if they are perceived to be on the left: “Anyone who is considered to be on the left in the FDP, even if only in a broader sense, is having a hard time. That applies even to grandees of the party.”

The Zeit concludes, “Courageous, optimistic, cosmopolitan, empathic. This is what the Liberals wanted to sound like. But…it is a bit like the Paris climate treaties: The decision-making situation and reality are, if at all, only distantly related.”

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