FDP Veterans Old Guard Itching For Comeback

Three ageing politicians are on a mission to rejuvenate Germany's liberal FDP party, the once proud kingmaker of German politics that has spent the last four years in the wilderness.
A word in your ear: FDP Veteran Wolfgang Kubicki (L) talking to party chairman Christian Lindner.

Germany’s pro-business Free Democratic Party was all but written off after it crashed out of parliament at the last general election in 2013, but is battling to regain its role as traditional kingmaker in German politics in the September vote.

It won't be easy because the FDP will have to elbow its way back in to a crowded market. It's one of six parties that are predicted to make it into parliament in September. They include three small parties that are all currently polling ahead of the FDP: the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany, the Greens and the Left Party.

Three ageing politicians are battling to ensure it makes a comeback, which will require shedding its image as a party preoccupied with cutting taxes for its traditionally affluent voter base of dentists, lawyers and tax advisers.

The three include the outspoken Wolfgang Kubicki, 65, an attorney who likes to point out that every day he spends working for the party and not as a lawyer costs him €3,000 ($3,260).

If you have spent decades working for a political task with inner commitment and passion, and you then see how it has reached such an existential crisis, you cannot sit by. Hermann Otto Solms, FDP Fiscal Expert, 76

Mr. Kubicki is the party’s deputy chairman and its regional leader in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, a region of wind farms, shipyards and seaside resorts, which is due to hold an election on May 7. A strong result for the FDP there could give it much-needed momentum for the more important regional election in North Rhine-Westphalia a week later and the national election.

Mr. Kubicki is one of the FDP’s most important figures alongside party leader Christian Lindner, 38, who lacks his charisma and has so far failed to invigorate the party that last ruled as junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s second term, between 2009 and 2013. In a regional election in the southwestern state of Saarland in March, the FDP chalked up small gains but still only polled 3.3 percent, short of the 5 percent needed to win seats in parliament.

Mr. Lindner has been non-committal so far about who he would prefer to govern with, the center-left Social Democrats or the conservatives of Ms. Merkel, even though the policy differences between the two main parties have widened in recent months. Firebrand Martin Schulz, named as the Social Democrats' chancellor candidate in January, has laid out a platform of spending growth and benefit increases which has galvanized voters and led to a surge in support for the SPD, jeopardizing Ms. Merkel’s bid for a fourth term.

Mr. Kubicki is among FDP veterans who have realized that the party needs to broaden its appeal beyond its traditional focus on tax cuts and civil liberties. It’s also campaigning on security and education.

“It's important that people don't lose faith in the capabilities of the constitutional state," said Mr. Kubicki. "In Schleswig-Holstein, for example, we have a 5-percent investigation success rate with burglaries in some regions. From a constitutional perspective, it is unacceptable that, in 95 out of a 100 cases, the injured party must be told that this is part of the general risk of being alive," said Mr. Kubicki.

Another stalwart of the old guard is fiscal policy expert Hermann Otto Solms, 76, who is on a mission to save the party that helped to lead West Germany and then unified Germany through its some its greatest challenges --  the Cold War, the left-wing terrorism of the 1970s, the fall of the Berlin Wall and then organizing its unification.

"If you have spent decades working for a political task with inner commitment and passion, and you then see how the party, or organized liberalism, has reached such an existential crisis, you cannot sit by,” said Mr. Solms. "I didn’t want to us to be responsible for our exit as a liberal party.”

The FDP will campaign for tax relief for middle-income households and family-owned businesses. The election manifesto, to be agreed by the FDP at a congress on Saturday, also calls for limits on the tax burden to be enshrined in the federal constitution.

The third musketeer is Thomas Sattelberger, 67, the former head of personnel at Deutsche Telekom who is campaigning to enter the federal parliament in September. His focus is education and digitalization.

In terms of policies, the FDP is closer to Ms. Merkel’s CDU, but the two parties may not win enough seats to attain a combined majority. Some conservative lawmakers say the FDP is so desperate to return to power after four years as also-rans that they would consider any constellation, even a left-leaning coalition, to reach their goal. The FDP is, after all, a past master at playing the game of thrones in German politics. In 1982, it switched allegiance, ditching the Social Democrats and joining forces with the conservatives of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, enabling it to spend a further 16 years in power.


Dana Heide is a political correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]