Election Year Pro-Business FDP on Upswing

A strong showing in Germany's most populous state on Sunday could give the Free Democratic Party the momentum for a return to Berlin in September.
Christian Lindner been fighting to help the FDP emerge stronger from its time wandering in the political wildness. DPA

If the pro-business Free Democrats do well in the North Rhine-Westphalia state election this Sunday, building on their strong performance in Schleswig-Holstein over the weekend, they could find themselves on their way back to Berlin as a potential coalition partner.

In a make-or-break year, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) wants to return to the federal parliament after losing all its seats in the 2013 election – a devastating defeat that left the party out of the German Bundestag for the first time in six decades. Fresh momentum has come most recently from the party’s 11.5-percent showing in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, up from 3.3 percent in the previous election, with nearly 77,000 more voters. The victory has increased the number of state governments with FDP representation to 10 out of 16.

But this weekend's showdown in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, is the far bigger test.

The Schlewsig-Holstein election gives us wind in our sails for North Rhine-Westphalia. Nicola Beer, FDP General Secretary

Current opinion polls from Forsa and Dimap show the FDP winning between 12 to 13 percent of the votes in North-Rhine Westphalia, or NRW, up from 8.6 percent in 2012. At the federal level, the party is polling at between 6 and 7 percent.

“The Schleswig-Holstein election gives us wind in our sails for North Rhine-Westphalia,” FDP General Secretary Nicola Beer told Handelsblatt.

The FDP suffered a crushing defeat in 2013 when it failed to clear the 5-percent hurdle required for parliamentary representation. It was a humiliating result for a party that was represented in the Bundestag for 64 straight years and had been part of 17 government cabinets.

Its 38-year-old leader, Christian Lindner, has been fighting ever since to help the party emerge stronger from its time wandering in the political wildness. He called the Schleswig-Holstein election a “rally call for the FDP” to return to Berlin and is now mobilizing all the party’s resources in NRW. Mr. Lindner is on nearly every poster in the state and is featured in a YouTube video racing around the country to win supporters.

Wolfgang Kubicki, FDP party head in Schleswig-Holstein, is open for coalition talks with the CDU and Greens.

Energetic and camera-friendly, Mr. Lindner, is championing a platform heavy on education, free markets, digitalization and security. For the laissez-faire liberal FDP that has struggled with the perception of being a one-issue party focused on cutting taxes for the rich, he has stressed education over the tax system as a way of promoting social fairness. But he still wants to see taxes go down.

Mr. Lindner has also fought to dispel the impression that the FDP is more interested in political coalitions than policies by going after his most natural ally - Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Christian Democrats. He has criticized Mr. Merkel’s refugee policies and what he views as a too conciliatory approach to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Criticism aside, the FDP and the chancellor’s party, the center-right CDU, are seen as likely coalition partners in Schleswig-Holstein. The FDP’s party head in the state, Wolfgang Kubicki, said no decisions will be taken until after the NRW election but showed interest in talking with the CDU as well as the Green Party.

He could find an open ear. The Christian Democrats won 32 percent of the vote, nearly 5 percent more than its main rival in the state, the Social Democratic Party. The result of the vote could allow the conservatives to push out the incumbent SPD state premier Torsten Albig, who has governed since 2012. CDU’s regional candidate Daniel Günther said he planned to purse coalition talks with the FDP and Greens.

The poor showing of the SPD in the Saarland state election in March and now Schleswig-Holstein appears to have ended a spike in the party’s popularity, known as the “Schulz effect,” after Martin Schulz took over as chairman and saw the party briefly lead the CDU in the polls.

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. Dana Heide and Kathrin Witsch contributed to this story. To reach the author: [email protected]