LIBERAL LIFT-OFF Free Democrats on Verge of a Comeback?

Germany’s Free Democratic Party hopes to become a force again in Berlin. But the pro-business party badly needs to succeed in upcoming regional elections before it can look to re-entering the federal parliament.
Christian Lindner has the support of many big names in German business.

When Christian Lindner, the 36-year-old leader of Germany’s Free Democratic Party, gives a key speech on Wednesday at a party congress in Stuttgart, many outside the party will be listenig to it carefully.

Mr. Lindner, a former Internet entrepreneur, has the support of many significant figures in German business, among them Jürgen Hambrecht, the chairman of the chemical company BASF, and Hans-Peter Stihl, the former boss of the well-known chainsaw manufacturer.

Executives like Mr. Hambrecht and Mr. Stihl hope to help the FDP get back onto its feet after some very difficult years. For many decades, the party was the smallest in Germany’s stable three-party political system, frequently governing in a coalition, sometimes with the center-left Social Democratic Party, sometimes with the conservative Christian Democratic Union.

But disaster struck at the 2013 federal elections, when the pro-business party failed to reach the 5 percent of national votes needed for parliamentary representation. Overnight, it lost its role in government and all its seats in the federal parliament, almost disappearing completely from the complex German political landscape.

Now the party seems in a stronger position to make a comeback. It is emphasizing its role as the missing political voice of business and free market ideas, explaining why more and more leaders from the business world are speaking up in support.

With German politics currently dominated by the grand coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats, and with the right wing Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party on the rise, many are lamenting the absence of a clear parliamentary voice for business.

“Just look at the CDU, SPD and the Green Party; they have no vitality, they seem sclerotic, they’re living in the past,” Thomas Sattelberger, a former director at Deutsche Telekom and Lufthansa, told Handelsblatt. “The CDU are like Social Democrats now, the SDP is mired in old leftist dogmas, and the Greens are mostly anti-business.”

My growing concern about German competitiveness led me to join the FDP. Jürgen Hambrecht, Chairman of the Supervisory Board, BASF

Mr. Sattelberger’s criticism of the three largest German parties is shared by many other business leaders, who are joining FDP in increasing numbers. “It was my growing concern about German competitiveness that led me to join the party,” Mr. Hambrecht said. “We urgently need more free-market ideas and policies here in Germany.

Mr. Stihl added: "The FDP will be important in bringing that about.”

Another recent arrival in the party’s ranks alongside these two businessmen is Eckhard Cordes, the former head of Metro, the retail and wholesale group.

The party certainly needs their support. In two months time, regional elections will take place in two key states, Baden-Württemburg and Rheinland-Palatinate. In both states, support for the FDP is hovering around the crucial 5-percent mark. There is no guarantee the party will make it over the threshold, but the signs are not bad. Elections last year in the city-states of Hamburg and Bremen saw the party succeed in regaining its place in regional assemblies.

Support from the business community is reflected in healthy fundraising for the party. More than €1.8 million, or $2 million, was donated in 2015, its second-best annual total outside a federal election year.

Mr. Lindner wants to start the year off by committing the party to “updating Germany as a location for business.” He shares the view of business leaders, he says, that the current government is simply reacting to one crisis after another.

“The euro crisis and the refugee crisis only grew to the extent they did because their first signs were ignored,"  Mr. Lindner said in an interview with Handelsblatt. "We just can't do the same thing with the economy, or else we’ll be talking about the ‘Germany crisis.’”

Thomas Sattelberger, a former director at Deutsche Telekom and Lufthansa, is concerned about Germany's competitiveness.

 

German competitiveness was already decreasing, he added, due to low investment, high energy prices and the lowering of the retirement age to 63.

Although Mr. Lindner will address refugee policy in his Stuttgart speech on Wednesday, it will not be his main topic, a decision that has drawn criticism within the party. Some senior party figures argue there is a demand in the country for clear and decisive leadership on the refugee crisis.

But Mr. Lindner sees things differently. He adamantly refuses any shift in the party's position on the right-wing AfD, which has gained support with its populist opposition to the large influx of refugees. “We do have a critical stance toward (the current coalition) government, but radical and crude opposition for its own sake is not our thing,” he said.

But Germany’s “magnet effect” in attracting refugees from abroad has to be reduced, he added, by bringing the country into line with tougher European standards. Mr. Lindner also said refugees should not stay in Germany for the long term, but return to Syria once the war ends.

Mr. Lindner wants the focus to be on key issues of the future, like digitialization, which he views as a promising development, allowing "people to decide for themselves when and where they work.”

We do have a critical stance toward the government, but radical and crude opposition for its own sake is not our thing. Christian Lindner, FDP leader

This focus led Jürgen Behrend, chairman and general partner at the automotive supplier Hella, to join the pro-business party. “Individual freedom and responsibility for yourself and for others are the foundation of our social existence,” Mr. Behrend told Handelsblatt, adding that as an employer, he is convinced the success of any business depends on the responsibility and creativity of its staff.

For Jochen Kienbaum, head of the consultancy Kienbaum, the policies of the Free Democrats address two key questions confronting German society: first, how to maintain freedom; and second, how to remain a leading economy by strengthening family-run businesses.

Mr. Lindner’s choice of key issues will be put to the test soon enough. March’s regional elections may determine his political future. As well as Baden-Württemburg and Rhineland-Palatinate, voters will go to the polls in the Eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. In all three, the Free Democrats must put on a convincing performance.

“If the FDP fails to regain its place in the Baden-Württemburg regional assembly, it would be a serious blow for Lindner,” said the political scientist Jürgen Falter. Mr. Lindner, he added, would be damaged even though he has no immediate rival waiting in the wings. The southwestern state of Baden-Württemburg is often seen as FDP heartland; a failure there would leave Mr. Lindner with some serious explaining to do.

“A disappointing result in Rhineland-Palatinate wouldn’t be quite as bad,” Mr. Falter said. But the FDP, he argued, would need to win representation in both regional assemblies if it were to stay on course to make a return to the federal parliament in 2017.

 

Rising From the Ruins FDP in Numbers-01

 

Women leaders helped bring the Free Democrats some success last year in regional elections, with strong performances from Katja Suding in Hamburg and Lencke Steiner in Bremen. This year, all three FDP regional leaders are men: Hans Rülke  in Baden-Württemberg, Volker Wissing in Rhineland-Palatinate and Frank Sitta in Saxony-Anhal. And all three will be looking to emulate their female colleagues.

As for party membership, there are mixed signals. Overall numbers are slightly down, but there is a steady enough stream of new arrivals, 2,500 in total. Mr. Falter, the political scientist, views the increase as a “positive sign,” especially given dramatic falls in the membership of larger parties in recent years. However, the question of whether the FDP will make it back into the federal parliament in 2017 adds uncertainty.

“That," Mr. Falter conceded, "is not really an incentive to pay party membership fees.”

 

Peter Brors, former deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt, is head of human resources at Handelsblatt and is head of the  Georg von Holtzbrinck Journalist School. Thomas Sigmund is Handelsblatt bureau chief in Berlin, where he directs political coverage. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]