Sunday’s general election in Germany made the headlines with two main stories: the re-election of Angela Merkel to serve a fourth term as Chancellor, and the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), a new party entering the Bundestag as third largest faction. Reaction to the results were dominated by relief over Merkel’s continuance in office – after all she is by far the longest-serving and most experienced among the leaders of the Western world – and shock over the parliamentary re-emergence of the German hard-right.
Arguably the most interesting outcome of the election, however, went largely unnoticed: the resurgence of the liberal party FDP. The FDP have a centre-right liberal platform, combining socially liberal attitudes with economically (neo)liberal views. This makes them a possible coalition partner for all the mainstream parties in Germany, having formed governments in the past, with both Christian and Social Democrats on the federal level, as well as the Greens on the state level.
Since the 1980s though, the liberals have mainly acted as an economically (and to a lesser extent socially) liberal corrective to the more interventionist conservative parties CDU and CSU.
After failing to win enough seats to win a majority for CDU/CSU and FDP in 2009, and thus having to form a “grand coalition” with the SPD, Merkel managed to achieve her preferred option four years later. The 2009-2013 conservative-liberal government proved unpopular however, with the smaller partner taking all the blame. The liberals came to be seen as uncaring and as a party for the selfishly rich, as tax cuts for businesses were their only memorable contribution to the coalition government. For the first time in post-war history the FDP – formerly the third party of German politics – dropped to fifth place and narrowly failed to cross the five percent threshold to gain parliamentary representation.
After this shattering defeat and a lot of soul-searching, the party reformed and rebranded itself. The entire party leadership was replaced. A modern interpretation of liberalism was crafted – pro-business, but not clientelistic. Their platform now centred around education, civil liberties and digitisation. And the party adopted a more conservative migration policy, along with a somewhat more Eurosceptic tone.
Most importantly however, the FDP elected a new leader, the young and dynamic Christian Lindner. Charismatic and a brilliant orator, Lindner quite frequently managed to get a party without parliamentary representation into the public spotlight, and convinced many voters that the party had actually changed. Lindner stands for a principled FDP, a party not willing to sell their soul – or their manifesto – in coalition negotiations in order to gain seats at the government table.
Lindner understands social media better than most other German politicians, reaching more people by going viral with videos online. Under his leadership, the FDP fought a very good election campaign, dominated by a leader who outperformed his counterparts in other parties both on Facebook and on TV. The liberals became an alternative again. One that not only attracted libertarian-minded Germans (there aren’t many of them), but also those critical of Merkel’s refugee policy who nonetheless were not willing to vote for the populist AfD. Linder also courted those disappointed by a “grand coalition” that all too often proved to be a convenience marriage without ideas and visions for the future.
Lindner’s approach proved successful. On Sunday, the FDP’s vote went up from 4.8% to 10.7%, easily clearing the 5% threshold. The AfD claimed the position of third party, but the revival of liberal fortunes in German politics is nonetheless remarkable.
What might the future hold for the FDP? After their abysmal result the Social Democrats quickly announced that they would not be part of any government. This only leaves one politically feasible and mathematically possible option: a coalition of CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens (a “Jamaica” coalition).
Germany values stability. An early election due to no agreement for a stable government is fairly unlikely. A “Jamaica” coalition is far from being a done deal, though. The liberals won’t be the pushovers they were in 2009 and will only agree to a deal if their red lines are respected. The left-wing Greens certainly aren’t a natural partner to either the conservatives nor the liberals.
This leaves Germany with a very difficult government negotiation lying ahead. A CDU/CSU-FDP-Green coalition spans from the political left right over to the political right. It is far from certain that even a skilled politician like Merkel will be able to bridge the gaps. The FDP in particular will have to weigh up the advantages of being in government with the difficult compromises certainly necessary.
If the FDP end up in government they will surely want to project a different image than in the past. A new modern, principled liberal party taking responsibility to govern under a young and dynamic leader – what a turn of fortunes for Germany’s FDP that would be.