Four-Year Survival

The party which governed Germany for the longest period of time is disappearing from the Bundestag.

A painful result. German liberals from FDP lacked only about 90,000 votes to cross the electoral threshold. They managed to convince only 4.8% of voters. For the first time in history, the liberal voice will be absent from German parliament. The party which has always been in the Bundestag (since 1949) and governed the Federal Republic longer than any other – 45 years (in about a year Christian democracy will have equalled this outcome and later on will break this record) is disappearing.

Many commentators indicate different reasons for FDP’s defeat. There are many opinions and, for sure, all the factors mentioned below played their roles. In my opinion, three of them were the most serious.

1. Because of the fact that most of its tenure in the years 2009-2013 (if not the whole) took place at the time of financial crisis in Europe, the FDP was simply unable to fulfil its main pre-election promise, namely, to reduce the volume of citizens’ tax burden. The slogan “More net from gross” accompanied the liberals incessantly throughout the whole opposition period in the years 1998-2009. During these 11 years, this slogan was fulfilled; it was not just an empty populist catchphrase of the opposition power. Unfortunately, when the party regained its participation in the government, the possibility to reduce taxes measurably disappeared together with a big part of FDP’s credibility.

2. While the present FDP’s outcome has obviously been the worst in its history, the previous one from 2009 has been the best (more than 14%). But this outcome was excessive and it outnumbered liberal electorate in Germany. It was possible for them to achieve such an outcome because a significant number of CDU and CSU’s voters looked negatively at the alliance of their party with SPD and told Merkel’s party off, signalising the preferred coalition. Undoubtedly, even half of the above mentioned 14% of votes was “borrowed” and came from conscientious members of Christian democracy. That is why, when friction and conflicts began in the coalition, the FDP could not count on the loyalty of these voters who came back to their proper political affiliation. According to research, more than 2,000,000 Germans have come from FDP’s 2009 electorate to the CDU/CSU’s group of voters this year.

3. FDP found itself in an uncomfortable position at the time crisis in the European Union, especially in the context of enrichment transfers for indebted countries from the South of Europe. On the one hand, liberals in Germany are creating a party which is strongly in favour of the European Union and is engaged in the ideas of European integration, and the policy of liberal heads of German diplomacy from previous decades i.e., Walter Scheel, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Klaus Kinkel, proves it best. On the other hand, as a party which in its economic-tax programme proclaims slogans of free market and limited government (including its expenses), it had to take into account that its base might be sceptical, or even hostile, towards the above mentioned enrichment transfers for scandalously indebted European countries which manage public funds in the wrong way. They were not able to manoeuvre all the time, and when the time for decisions came, the FDP was in favour of European ideals, agreeing to considerable concessions towards its ideals concerning economic policy. As a result, hundreds of thousands of FDP’s voters from 2009 reinforced the electorate of the new Eurosceptical party – AfD. Had it not been for the loss of these votes, FDP would still be in the Bundestag and probably in the government.

What now? A commentator used to the reality of Polish politics would probably incline towards giving the FDP up. Here comes to mind the story of a party quite similar to FDP (but for sure not the same), which said goodbye to Polish Sejm (the lower chamber of the Polish parliament) in 2001, and has never come back to it again despite many attempts in 2005 and 2007 (excluding two deputies chosen from a wider and somebody else’s coalition list). The story is obviously about the Freedom Union/Democratic Party. But the situation in the party system in Germany is slightly different – electorates are less “smooth” and do not switch chaotically and in great numbers from one party to another. The FDP has an electorate which has been sociologically shaped for more than half a century and can refer to it, but still it has to stimulate it better than in the last years. As the former head of FDP, Wolfgang Gerhardt, noticed in a TV interview after the outcome was announced, FDP’s problem is not the decline in liberal electorate in Germany; its problem is the fact that the way in which the FDP has been representing liberalism recently discourages a considerable part of this electorate. That is why, a rational approach to the most likely 4-year political survival as a non-parliamentarian opposition is to continuously take clear cut actions in some political aspects, but above all to push forward new ideas.

Exactly such actions are announced by a prospective new head of the FDP, the leader of its club in North Rhine-Westphalian Landtag, Christian Lindner. He is the most suitable person for this post. A year and a half ago I already appealed ( to make Lindner the head of the party, and I hoped he would change FDP’s disastrous survey tendencies. It did not happen, but I heard rumours that on that level Lindner himself was not interested in taking his predecessors’ mistakes on his shoulders. But he took into account the fulfilment of contemporary mission in case of “the doomsday scenario”, which has just come true.

Christian Lindner has announced a clear, new beginning for his party and a far-reaching change of its image. We can see here that the evaluation of FDP’s main problem of the last years has been apt – it had the image of egoists. Today, the problem is not only the fact that the FDP is perceived as a party of the richest Germans. Such a situation has been the case for at least 28-30 years and, although it is used as the reason for unrefined jokes of the party, it has never been a real problem. In the end, it is quite logical that people with high incomes who run independent businesses and the big-city middle class will seek the company of a party with liberal programme. FDP’s problem for the last 5-8 years has been its lack of ideas, which has been noticed by public opinion. Favouring the ones who have big gross incomes and would like to have bigger net incomes stopped being credibly justified with freedom axiology premises and gained the face of simple lobbyism and clientelism. They should give it up (but it does not mean giving up neoliberal economic programme), especially that, according to all data available, the richest Germans have voted more willingly for The Greens than for the FDP for a couple of years (there is a higher average income in this group of voters).

I have three tips for Christian Lindner. I think that today these three elements would radically increase FDP’s chances to come back to the Bundestag in 2017; it is not out of the question that they may come back directly to the front benches.

1. To restore its liberal image – candidly liberal, liberation and authentic image – they should put forward recently neglected traditional elements of liberal programme in Germany. They should refer to traditions connected with Gerhart Baum and make them the pivot of its image improvement. It makes sense, because such a subject matter plays a big role in contemporary world and this role will be getting bigger, not smaller. The FDP should focus the media’s attention as a party which is against: citizens’ invigilation by the state and its services; excessive gathering of data; using too severe sanctions in introducing law and order; a tendency to “patronise” and incapacitate citizens, both as for the protection of their safety and social protection; and which is against depriving people of anonymity and freedom on the Internet. FDP’s voice was painfully missing from the discussion on PRISM and German government implication in the cooperation with the USA in this field. The European Parliament will be an important field to profile parties in this subject matter, and liberals will be present there at least till the end of summer. Such problems are getting more and more important for a bigger group of voters, and the time of the so-called big coalition’s governance (two parties with little sensitivity to such matters) can turn out to be the time of harvest for the radically individual-liberation party. Actions undertaken in this area will additionally ensure FDP media’s attention, and that is – as we all now – not an easy challenge for a non-parliamentarian party.

2. The FDP has been for a long time (or even since its beginning in 1948) the only German party in favour of free market in economic policy. It should not be changed. A voter who quickly notices that it is not good when there are four parties in the Bundestag and all of them are more or less willing to develop state apparatus’s social functions, naturally has to search for FDP’s voice in certain discussions on these subjects. As for the coalition with SPD, we should expect a “re-socialdemocratisation of CDU and CSU”, which could have been observed in the years 2005-2009. Christian democracy will be forced to compromise with social democrats’ programme and later on – for fear of being pushed down to the role of a “bad policeman” inside the coalition – it will unavoidably stand with SPD in the race for the title of No. 1 Santa Claus in the country. FDP’s task is to present an alternative for this kind of governance. Because of the fact that the opposition will comprise even more social The Greens and the Left, it can be a kind of “sure-fire hit”. That is why, I suggest that they should talk less about economic policy, and let the elements from the first item decide about the new FDP’s image. In the scope of economic policy, the electorate, which is tired of the social four in the Bundestag, will be glad with liberals regularly confirming their present programme line.

3. The reconstruction of the party must be carried out on the level of federal states. The FDP now only has a seat in one federal government, namely, the Free State of Saxony, in coalition with CDU. But it has its factions in some further landtags. There are still 4 years until we have elections to the Bundestag, but, as always, there will be a series of federal elections earlier. In this case, the FDP has to illustrate the process of restoring its position and support with bare numbers to make the crossing of the electoral threshold in 2017 seem true. That is why, I suggest reaching for the experience of the British Liberal Party from the ‘60s and ‘70s  of the 20th century, especially from the time of Jo Grimond’s leadership. At that time, they were concentrated on building the support for liberal politicians on the local level and on the basis of local political problems. This is also the way for the FDP in the years to come. Liberals from particular federal states have to think how to become the mouthpieces of popular demands on regional and local levels, and later on, transfer the support gained in this way towards Lindner’s federal FDP.

There is no point in deluding ourselves; it will not be easy. The FDP is now the so-called sinking ship which first deserters already want to leave towards CDU. It is not an easy task to maintain the functioning of a non-parliamentarian party, but in Western Europe liberal parties have fallen out of parliament many times and later on have come back. The FDP also has many such experiences on the level of landtags. They should make use of them and search for a new place on the political scene.

Translation: Anita Stradomska