Free Democrats The Liberal Comeback

Germany’s pro-business Free Democratic Party has been in the doldrums since a disastrous election result in 2013. But its fortunes have begun to turn recently, with polls suggesting a strong showing at this year’s ballot.
Christian Lindner is credited with reinvigorating the FDP.

Necessity is the mother of invention and since its ejection from parliament in 2013, Germany's Free Democratic Party has grown quite inventive.

Last summer, for instance, a white truck it hired was spotted driving around London just after the Brexit vote carrying a placard that read: "Dear start-ups, keep calm and move to Berlin."

This is the kind of outside-the-box thinking that has helped keep the FDP on the map in nine of Germany's 16 state parliaments - even if it hasn't been represented on a national level since its bitter election defeat in 2013.

Now, as the Free Democrats get ready to hold their annual New Year’s get-together, the party is hoping to leverage voter discontent with mainstream parties and secure at least 5 percent of the overall vote in federal elections this fall, which it would need to re-enter parliament.

Polls suggest the party could have a shot. Nationwide, 6 percent of surveyed voters said they would vote for the liberals. What's more, in two states scheduled to hold elections this year, namely Schleswig-Holstein in the north and Nord Rhine-Westphalia in the west, support for the FDP is in the double-digits, according to some estimates.

The FDP is committed to setting the conditions for making money before there can be talk of redistributing it. Lutz Goebel, president of the Association of Family Businesses

The party's "keep calm" gimmick in London last year was successful insofar as it boosted its publicity ahead of a vote in the city-state of Berlin, where 6.7 percent of ballots were cast in favor of the liberals.

These positive developments are a far cry from the legions of FDP members who abandoned the party starting in 2009, when it fell into disarray after joining a coalition government with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

During the FDP's lamentable performance between 2009 and 2013, the party hemorrhaged members. In 2009, there were 72,116 card-carrying supporters, but that number rapidly sank to around 53,800.

Donations also reached a new low in 2010, when the party took in only around €970,000 ($1.02 million). Since then, that sum has risen to €1.8 million.

The FDP is a small libertarian party that for decades punched above its weight in the history of postwar German politics. But following its 2009 entry into a coalition government, it lost direction and was unable to right itself in time. Plagued by confusion over its stance on issues like the euro crisis, the party’s leadership began to crumble.

Today, its leader Christian Lindner has no doubts over his party's chances for a comeback.

"I'm quite sure the FDP will be successful. At a time when everyone else seems to be following the mainstream, there must be a party that still stands for freedom, reason and courage," he told Handelsblatt in an interview.

The FDP has long stood for less government interference, a strong market economy and more robust civil liberties. It plans to make those issues and others - including internal security, education and digital infrastructure - the foundation for its comeback.

"Our business model needs an update if we want to preserve our prosperity," said Mr. Lindner.

The FDP’s electoral pledges foresee tax relief of €30 billion and more resources dedicated to the fight against terrorism. In addition, Mr. Lindner has called for action on education, innovation and digitalization.

On the refugee crisis, Mr. Lindner said his party offered an important alternative.

"The liberal nature of our society is at stake as authoritarian movements gain traction, including in our country," he said. "With refugee policy, for instance, many people have been missing a voice of reason, one that advocates immigration caps and clear rules without stoking anti-foreigner sentiment."

Today, the business-friendly party is receiving strong support from industry leaders. The heads of the German chemical giant BASF, the machine tool manufacturer Trumpf and the engineering and electronics company Robert Bosch GmbH all have front row seats at the FDP's New Year's meeting in Stuttgart on Friday.

"Christian Lindner is going to give the establishment, especially the chancellor, a run for its money," said Thomas Sattelberger, a former Deutsche Telekom executive.

The list of prominent supporters doesn't stop there. There is a growing number of FDP backers that cover a wide range of business competencies, from a board member of the technology company Heraeus, Jürgen Heraeus, to the head of HBSC's Germany branch, HSBC Trinkaus, Andreas Schmitz, and the supervisory chief of the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, Werner Wenning.

There's even Jürgen Stark, the former chief economist of the European Central Bank, and Wolfgang Fengler from the World Bank.

"The time in extra-parliamentary opposition has clearly done wonders for the FDP," said Daniel Zimmer, the managing director of the Institute for Commercial and Economic Law at the University of Bonn. "The party has renewed itself in terms of personnel and is entering the race with fresh, substantive arguments. If this party makes it into the Bundestag, it could give crusty German politicians just the impetus they need."

The chances of that happening are not entirely unlikely - only a few politicians from the party's old guard are still active members.

But it's not only Big Business that is placing its hopes in the FDP. So are Germany's iconic small and medium-sized companies, known as the Mittelstand.

"Without question, there is no liberal power in the Bundestag," said Lutz Goebel, the president of the Association of Family Businesses. "The FDP is committed to setting the conditions for making money before there can be talk of redistributing it."

For the Free Democrats, 2017 is a make-or-break year. The party needs to find its way back into the Bundestag, lest it risk falling off most voters' radars completely.


Dana Heide is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin, focusing on energy policies, small and medium-sized companies and innovation. Thomas Sigmund is Berlin bureau chief and chief of political reporting. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]