Christian Linder (L) with Katya Sudling and Wolfgang Kubicki. Source: dpa
The Free Democratic Party has long been the kingmaker in German politics: the free market, pro-business party that held the balance of power in Germany’s parliament. But in September 2013, for the first time in 64 years, the party won less than 5 percent of the vote, preventing them from taking any parliamentary seats.
But at the recent FDP convention in Berlin, a resurrected party was laying out new strategies for upcoming state elections.
It wants to build on recent successes. The party performed better than expected in Hamburg in February and again in Bremen on May 10, making it into both city-state parliaments, and there are hopes that the worst may be behind them.
Party chairman Christian Lindner and his colleagues are smart enough, however, not to get carried away.
“We have reached stability,” he warned, “but no more.”
Mr. Lindner and his FDP leadership team of Katja Suding and Nicola Beer are models for the fresh face the party is putting forward.
Still, the 36-year-old has managed to make the FDP basically electable again – and delegates rewarded him with more than 90 percent of votes to remain party leader.
The party had been in federal government longer than any other party in Germany, as coalition partner over the years to center-right Christian Democrats or left-leaning Social Democrats.
The 2013 election results, after a difficult period in government with Chancellor Angela Merkel and the CDU, came as a real shock and prompted the party to rethink its entire strategy.
Now Mr. Lindner’s new FDP differentiates itself from the old with unusual party unity. The infighting at the top of the party seems to be a thing of the past. Volker Zastrow from Saxony who campaigned nationally against Mr. Lindner last year for the party leadership returned to the fold. Mr Linder greeted him: “A warm welcome back, Volker.”
The party is also focusing on how to appeal to voters again – with a brightly colored logo, a new slogan “German Courage” and candidates like newcomer Lencke Steiner, the 29-year-old entrepreneur who was the party’s top candidate in Bremen.
Mr. Lindner and his FDP leadership team of Katja Suding and Nicola Beer are models for the fresh face the party is putting forward – comparatively young individuals who are open to the world and optimistic.
They don't even want to call themselves Free Democrats. They want to sell an attitude toward life. They want to be the party of the Apple generation.
They talk of a “republic of opportunities” and promote a general overhaul of the education system. They want Germany to be an open immigration society and they rail against retention of telecommunications data. On Sunday, the base even voted for legalizing cannabis.
After the 2013 elections, the Greens hoped to poach on FDP territory. Now Mr. Lindner is turning the tables.
It remains to be seen whether his concept will work outside of the city-states – in places like Baden Wuerrttemberg, for example, where elections will be held in March 2016.
During the last election in their heartland, the party barely managed to get into the state parliament. The support they did receive came from FDP’s core middle-class voters, who mostly are neither young nor particularly open to the world. Lower taxes are more important to these voters than open borders, and definitely more important than legal consumption of cannabis.
Mr. Lindner is trying to keep them on board too. In ongoing debt negotiations with Athens, he promotes a hard line. Greece remaining in the euro zone under false conditions would be, according to Mr. Lindner, “an economic program for left populists” in Europe.
The FDP wants to “radically simplify” the tax system. That means ending the solidarity tax - the tax all Germans pay to finance the cost of reunification - and introducing a uniform income tax rate.
The moves are not popular with the left, particularly the Social Democrats, currently in coalition with the CDU. Thomas Oppermann, chairman of the SPD parliamentary group, said: “The FDP is unfortunately driving the wrong way again in tax politics.”
But even that criticism is a win for Mr. Lindner. Four months ago, no top SPD politician would have bothered to even comment on an FDP proposal.
Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt's foreign policy correspondent in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]