FDP Party Woes Germany's Vanishing Political Center

The Free Democratic Party, a centrist, pro-business group and a fixed feature of Germany's post-war governments, is on life support, the victim of hubris, infighting and a narrow agenda. New party leader, Christian Linder, is hoping to achieve a comeback.
Germany's vanishing political middle. The Free Democrat Party, a moderate, pro-business group that has helped anchor conservative and Social Democratic governments, is fighting for survival.

When Christian Lindner gives his traditional beginning-of-the-year speech today at the Stuttgart State Theater, he will face a tough audience.

The chairman of Germany's Free Democratic Party, the centrist political glue that has held together right- and left-wing governments for much of the country's post-war history, is hoping for nothing short of a minor miracle.

In polls, only 2 percent of German voters say they have confidence in Mr. Lindner and the centrist, pro-business political party he heads.

Hardly anyone votes for the FDP these days, and liberalism no longer has a political home in Germany. In 2013, the party failed to make it into the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, for the first time since 1949.

Nevertheless, the party is hoping to turn things around and it will be comforted by the fact that it can still depend on private donations. The FDP leadership is depending on this reliable source of funding in its bid to stage a political comeback and return to the parliament after the 2017 elections.

"All told, we collected €1.6 million ($1.9 million) in donations in 2014," Hermann Otto Solms, the party's treasurer, told Handelsblatt. It was the second-best fundraising outcome the national party has ever achieved in a year between elections, approaching the record €2 million raised in 2008.

In polls, only 2 percent of German voters say they have confidence in Mr. Lindner and the centrist, pro-business political party he heads.

For political expert Jürgen Falter of the University of Mainz, this is an unequivocal signal from Germany's business community.

"Many small and mid-sized businesses, along with tradespeople, miss a liberal voice in the Bundestag,'' Mr. Falter said. In Germany, the term "liberal'' is used to describe pro-business policies. "They want to help the FDP."

Although donations don’t bring in voters, he added, they do enable the party to successfully fund its organizing efforts for upcoming election campaigns.

After its disastrous showing in the 2013 national election the FDP drastically reduced spending. The national party's budget shrank from €17 million to €11 million, with government subsidies declining by €4 million a year. Half of the 40 people working at the party's Berlin headquarters lost their jobs.

But the drastic cutbacks have paid off. After posting a loss of €3.4 million in 2013, the FDP made a profit of about €1.2 million last year, according to Mr. Solms.

The business community is helping the party by contributing both funding and ideas. The 40-member "Liberal Agenda 2025 Network'' was established last month. One of the initiators, management consultant Jochen Kienbaum, says: "I strongly believe that we need the liberal voice in Germany. The FDP is repositioning itself, which I see as a very promising move."

 

</a> Christian Lindner, the FDP chairman, faces an uphill battle to restore his party's credibility among German voters and to regain entry into the Bundestag after a disastrous 2013 election showing.

 

Despite the sharp rise in political contributions, party leaders hardly have reason for euphoria.

The national party is still about €8 million in debt to private creditors and lenders such as Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank and Sparkasse Köln/Bonn.

It is a humbling state of affairs for a party accustomed to wielding influence at the top levels of German government. Theodor Heuss, who helped found the FDP in 1948, served as West Germany's first post-war president in 1949. Another FDP member, Walter Scheel, served as German president and as interim chancellor.

The party traditionally drew 10 to 15 percent of German voters, enough to be minority partner in ruling coalitions under German conservative chancellors Konrad Adenauer from 1961 to 1963, Helmut Kohl from 1982 to 1988, and, Angela Merkel, from 2009 until 2013. The FDP also was partner in the Social Democratic-led government of Helmut Schmidt from 1974 to 1982.

 

FDP Declining Popularity-01

 

Until 2013, the party had enthusiastically played a role as a vocal, pro-business minority, commanding roughly 10 percent of the vote, and using its limited leverage to campaign against bureaucracy and taxes in Germany's sizeable public sector. But in its alliance with Ms. Merkel, the party lost support under a young, but inexperienced leader, Philipp Rösler, and failed to deliver on its key campaign promise to reduce taxes, which Ms. Merkel blocked.

In elections in September 2013, the FDP polled just short of 5 percent, a disastrous showing, and failed to send any members to the German Bundestag for the first time since 1949. Mr. Rösler, a 40-year-old, brainy physician who had failed to rally his own party or voter interest, resigned and was replaced by Mr. Lindner, the 36-year-old son of teachers from Wuppertal in the country's industrial northwest, and a 20-year party functionary.

At the FDP annual event, which is always held on the Feast of the Ephiphany, experiments are generally frowned upon. In fact, it will be a minor revolution for FDP members when two young women take the stage in Stuttgart on Tuesday and address the audience. Instead of rattling off the usual speeches, Katja Suding, 40, and Lencke Steiner, 29, will talk about themselves and their party in a live talk show.

The party has great hopes for its two top candidates in upcoming elections this year in the city-states of Hamburg and Bremen. Their mission is to put an end to a series of devastating defeats for the FDP and to begin a new successful era for their embattled party.

"It's time we had an election success once again," said Ms. Suding.

It's time we had an election success once again. Katja Suding, FDP Candidate in Hamburg

She and Ms. Steiner hope to give the FDP a new, fresh face, and not just in their two city-states. The duo are key figures in Mr. Lindner's strategy to appeal to new groups within the electorate, especially women and young voters, without alienating the party's base of traditional supporters within small and mid-sized businesses in Germany's Mittelstand. The FDP party leadership approved its revised "brand'' image on Monday. Mr. Lindner will not unveil the new party logo until his speech today in Stuttgart, but it’s an open secret that the color magenta will be added to the party's dominant colors since the 1960s of yellow and blue.

The goal is to ensure voters will look to the FDP again after its losses in state and European elections in 2014.

The new leadership around Mr. Lindner has set out to turn the FDP into the party of democratic liberalism once again, and not just the party that supports tax cuts.

 

FDP’s Finances and Staffing-01

 

The new FDP wants to be an advocate for civil rights and campaign for education policies that emphasize advancement opportunities. When it comes to economic and fiscal policy, the FDP strongly opposes some of the decisions taken by Ms. Merkel's current right-left coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, which on January 1 introduced Germany's first national minimum wage of €8.50 per hour.

Mr. Lindner has promised that the FDP will champion these causes with vigor and "in undiluted form," focusing on a common agenda and avoiding the kinds of internal party disputes that had damaged the FDP's standing with voters.

So far, voters have not warmed to Mr. Lindner's message of a new-look FDP. The party suffered devastating losses in elections last year in the eastern states of Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg, as well as in last May's European election. The party's loss of reputation from its four-year alliance with Ms. Merkel -- which benefitted the German chancellor but not her coalition partner -- can still be felt today.

Beyond Mr. Lindner, the German media have shown little interest in focusing on any of the party's leaders, essentially writing off the group as a spent political force. Even Mr. Linder's eloquent deputy, Wolfgang Kubicki, has largely disappeared from the media radar in recent months.

So far, voters have not warmed to Mr. Lindner's message of a new-look FDP.

Missing a slate of charismatic candidates and party leaders, the FDP has struggled to get its message across to an indifferent electorate.

Ms. Suding and Ms. Steiner, its latest partisan hopefuls, are now to bridge the gap. The party has high expectations for Ms. Suding, who is campaigning in one of the FDP's traditional strongholds, Hamburg. But even that isn't certain. If the FDP fails there, the party may slowly fade out, this time for good.

"The pressure inspires me," Ms. Suding said.

 

</a> The FDP is hoping that its leading candidate in upcoming elections in Hamburg, Katja Suding, can begin the party's comeback nationally in Germany.

 

She may need more than inspiration.

Even in Hamburg, where the FDP's state organization has been plagued by infighting, the party is only polling 2 to 3 percent, not enough to enter parliament. For months, Ms. Suding has been embroiled in a bitter power struggle with her own party's former state chairwoman, Sylvia Canel. Ms. Canel has since left the FDP and founded a competing party, called the New Liberals.

Ms. Suding has set a goal of capturing 7 percent of the vote in Hamburg, but that seems nothing short of illusory, with only six weeks to go before the election. Four years ago, she managed to secure a seat in Hamburg's parliament in a final rally, ending a seven-year hiatus for the FDP.

If she succeeds in her reelection, Ms. Suding could keep the FDP, Germany's vanishing political middle, relevant again, at least for a while.

 

Till Hoppe is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Berlin. Thomas Sigmund is Handelsblatt's Berlin bureau chief. Kevin O'Brien is the editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. To reach the authors: [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected].