Last Chance FDP Fights for Relevance in Hamburg

The business-friendly Free Democrats are in an existential battle after they failed to win a seat in the German parliament for the first time in almost 70 years. The party faces a crucial test on Sunday in Hamburg's state election.
Quelle: dpa
(Source: dpa)

Source: DPA

The Free Democrats, a pro-business splinter party that was the political glue of several post-war German governments, faces an existential moment of truth on Sunday in a key election in Hamburg.

The small party badly needs a good showing after a string of disastrous outcomes in state elections that has seen it pushed to the edge of political relevance in Germany.

In a sign of how low its fortunes have sunk, the FDP in the weekend election is not fighting for victory -- that will definitely go to the Social Democrats and their popular Hamburg mayor, Olaf Scholz -- but merely to get into state parliament.

Clearing the 5 percent hurdle on Sunday would be a faint, but clear sign of life from the FDP, which was forced to leave the national political stage in 2013 after failing to get even the 5 percent required to send members into the Bundestag.

Polls show the party, which was founded in 1948, may indeed pass the test in Hamburg, where 5 percent to 7 percent of voters recently said they would support the party and its lead candidate, Katja Suding.

A strong push in Hamburg by the FDP chairman, Christian Lindner, has also appeared to boost the party's prospects, which on Friday remained unclear as voters in the northern German city prepared to go to the polls.

Failing to send delegates to the Hamburg parliament could be the political death knell for the FDP, which is only present in six state legislatures, all in the former West Germany, and is no longer a member of any state ruling coalition. In 2011, the FDP was still a force in German politics, represented in all 16 state parliaments as well as the Bundestag, and a partner in seven regional coalition governments. But the party's fortunes plunged under the leadership of Philipp Rösler, the chairman who was unable to deliver the party's tax-cutting promises as the junior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government.

With its commitment to an economically liberal agenda, the FDP has been vital in representing the interests of small and medium-sized businesses in Germany. But the party lost standing among German voters after it failed to leverage its position as Ms. Merkel's coalition partner from 2009 to 2013 to trim government spending and lower taxes, among the highest in Europe.

Any hesitations we ever had within our own ranks regarding Europe are in the past now. Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, Former justice minister and member of the FDP since 1978

Under Ms. Merkel, the FDP and its leaders appeared to fade into irrelevance. The small party, which has rarely polled above 10 percent in national votes, damaged its cause through leadership struggles and a loud disagreement over bailing out the euro, led by Mr. Rösler.

“There were promises (to voters) regarding finance and tax policies, none of which were carried out,” Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a leading FDP politician who served as justice minister from 1992 to 1996 and from 2009 to 2013, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

“From 2009 onwards, many things went wrong,” Ms. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said.

That year, the FDP captured an unprecedented 14.6 percent of the German vote, up from 9.8 percent in 2005.

Four years later, the party's support cratered to just 4.8 percent, below the 5 percent threshold to send members to the Bundestag.


Quelle: dpa
Ms. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger when she was justice minister during the fatal years for the FDP between 2009 and 2013.
(Source: dpa)


Some critics say the FDP leader before Mr. Rösler, Guido Westerwelle, should have taken the post of finance minister instead of foreign minister in Ms. Merkel's coalition government. This would have given the business-friendly party more leverage over tax policy.

The role of German finance minister is one of the most popular political posts because its occupant is frequently in the media as the nation's international ambassador, but is largely able to avoid divisive fights over taxation and spending.

Mr. Westerwelle made himself unpopular by openly criticizing both of Germany's established political parties, Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, in what some considered a too direct, abrasive style for German politics.

“In the eyes of the public, he didn’t perform well in this role and continued to interfere with national politics instead of focusing on foreign affairs” Mr. Niedermayer said.

With his personal popularity ratings plummeting, Mr. Westerwelle ceded the FDP leadership in May 2011 to his deputy, Mr. Rösler, a physician who took on the post of economics minister, in the hopes of reviving the party's image.

But Mr. Rösler, a Vietnamese orphan who was raised in Germany by German parents, fared even worse than Mr. Westerwelle.

The FDP failed to support its own voters and instead went with popular opinion Oskar Niedermayer, Political scientist at the Freie University in Berlin.

Besides being ineffectual at promoting its own agenda in Ms. Merkel's government, the FDP lost standing after its own members fought openly over the costs and wisdom of German financial support during the height of the euro crisis.

A damaging split between a euroskeptic wing of the FDP and those members who favored Ms. Merkel’s handling of the euro crisis left voters confused about what the pro-business party actually stood for.

At the same time, an avowedly anti-euro party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, emerged and began to siphon off FDP supporters.

AfD, which was created in 2013 by those who want Germany to leave the euro zone, narrowly missed entering the Bundestag in 2013 with a vote of 4.7 percent. These days, the FDP is keen to portray itself as a unified pro-European party in contrast to the AfD, which is now fighting internally over its own direction and principles.

“We have now made clear, there is no common grounds with the AfD, and we are clearly supporting the euro and Europe,” Ms. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said.

“Any hesitations we ever had within our own ranks regarding Europe are in the past now,” she said.

The FDP also stumbled over its strong opposition to Germany's minimum wage, which took effect on Jan. 1.

While the party’s voters did not back the measure, which was approved by the government in August 2014,  Mr. Rösler campaigned for higher minimum wage in certain sectors and regions and said business models with hourly wages of €3 were unfair.

“The FDP failed to support its own voters and instead went with popular opinion, which largely supported minimum wage,” Oskar Niedermayer, a political expert at the Free University in Berlin, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

This kind of muddled thinking saw the party punished severly in the September 2013 election.


Quelle: dpa
Former ministers Guido Westerwelle and Philipp Rösler with Chancellor Angela Merkel. They managed to run the party's popularity into the ground during their time in office.
(Source: dpa)


Now, the current party leader, Mr. Lindner, a 36-year-old career party official, is fighting to keep the FDP relevant.

The party got a boost after a speech by Mr. Lindner to the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia went viral.

Video: FDP chairman Christian Lindner wins over the crowds in a speech that shows the FDP is back. (This video is in German.)


In the video, Mr. Lindner passionately responds to a left-wing politician's heckling during his speech on the importance of entrepreneurship in Germany. Volker Münchow, a Social Democrat, heckled Mr. Lindner by saying that the FDP chairman had "experience" as as entrepreneur, referring to Mr. Lindner's failed attempt to launch an Internet company amid the bust of 2000.

In a three-minute tirade, Mr. Lindner accused Mr. Münchnow of intimidating young people who want to start their own businesses.

"If one succeeds, one ends up in the sights of the Social Democrats in the redistribution machinery and, if one fails, one can be sure of derision and mockery," he said.

Over 2 million people have since watched the video.

The passionate outburst may boost Mr. Lindner's weak profile and his own party's chances in Hamburg this Sunday.

"The election in Hamburg is the last chance for the Free Democrats to remain in the political game,” Mr. Niedermayer said.

Polls toward the end of last year showed the FDP attracting just 2 percent of the vote in Hamburg, not enough to enter parliament.

But since then, the party appears to have bounced back.

Recent polls show that FDP could reach 5 percent to 7 percent, which would comfortably see them enter parliament.

Suddenly FDP is talking about entering in to a coalition with the SPD, the likely winners on Sunday, and its popular mayor, Mr. Scholz. Mr. Scholz prefers to rule alone or with the Green party.

Traditionally, Hamburg has been difficult terrain for the FDP, despite being a wealthy hanseatic city with a strong business legacy.

During the election in 2011, the Hamburg FDP under the leadership of its lead candidate, Ms. Suding, received 6.7 percent of the vote and sent members to parliament. In elections in 2008 and 2004, the FDP failed to reach the 5 percent hurdle and was excluded.

“The weakness of the FDP comes from the fact that Hamburg’s government is business-friendly already,” Gero Neugebauer, an expert on German political parties, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “There is little ground for the FDP to work on. The middle class in Hamburg felt at home with Social Democrats and Christian Democrats too.”

Also complicating the party's chances in Hamburg were damaging public quarrels last summer over its future direction. The internal spat got so bad that some Hamburg FDP members left the party and created a left-wing party version of the FDP called the New Liberals.

“The New Liberals won’t take away many votes, but in this tight race, every percentage and every vote can be crucial,” Mr. Niedermayer of Berlin's Free University said.

The FDP's lead candidate, Ms. Suding, is a public relations professional who has run a slick election campaign in Hamburg, giving media access to her private life and posing in glossy magazines with other female members of her party.

“We need to create a turnaround for the party as a whole and re-establish our strong issues,” Ms. Suding told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “I am sure we will make it."


Franziska Scheven is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition, covering companies, markets and politics. To contact the author: [email protected]