“Violet is the last try”: this popular German saying is probably hundred years old, and it was originally used to make fun of frivolous women who attempted to attract attention by dressing in vivid colours. Fittingly, the liberal party (FDP), the morose grand old lady of German politics, is now also putting on shades of violet. At their traditional party convention on January 6 – Epiphany – in Stuttgart, they proudly presented a new corporate identity, as if marketing could bring about a popular epiphany in their favour. They now boast a modernized logo in warmer shades of yellow and blue than before, plus a pinch of magenta and violet; a modified wording (“Die freien Demokraten” instead of “Die Liberalen”), and new posters. One of the posters introduces a young, rather unknown lady running for local parliament as “our man in Hamburg” – in an all too obvious, desperate attempt to become the talk of town. And all the party officials were wearing magenta scarves or ties.
The FDP is in dire need to attract attention. Current opinion polls see the party at 2 to 3 percent, while they scored 4,8 percent in the last federal elections on September 22nd, 2013 (compared to 14,6 percent in 2009, which was an all-time high since 1949). Due to the 5 percent threshold, the party is now no longer represented in parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time ever in its long history. The voters had found it necessary and apt to punish the weak partner in the last center-right coalition government, where the liberals were unable to prevail with any of their professed goals. In the meantime, the decline has spread from the federal level to the regions: the FDP is no longer part of any “Länder” government and thus doesn’t even have a say in the second chamber, the Bundesrat.
Although everybody expected a decline, hardly anybody would have imagined such a devastating demise of the party whose roots go back as far as to the age of Enlightenment and the years leading up to the German liberal revolution in 1848. The career of political liberalism in Germany began with the “Deutsche Fortschrittspartei”, the first fore-runner of the FDP, founded in 1861. This was the first democratically instituted political party in Germany. More than two centuries later, the FDP could pride itself of 25 years of government participation in the Federal Republic. That era now seems over.
In the meantime, most of the former party officials have chosen either retirement or a future in business. The former head of the FDP and German Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler is now a member of the Managing Board at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland; the former Secretary of State Guido Westerwelle has created his own foundation; the financial expert Otto Fricke has become partner in a consulting firm; the former leader of the parliamentary group Rainer Brüderle has retreated from the scene after an odd sexism scandal. It is now the chore of the 35 year old Christian Lindner, leader of the parliamentary group in the Land of North Rhine Westphalia and head of the federal FDP since the cataclysm of 2013, to hold together the remains of the party and to initiate a comeback. Long considered too young for the job, this eloquent and brilliant speaker is now also the liberal party’s “last try” and ultimate chance. If he fails to revive and reinvigorate the party, it will be dead and buried.
The FDP is confronted with a multitude of problems. Internally, the party is emaciated. Apart from Lindner, there is virtually almost nobody left. The only remaining publicly known figure is Wolfgang Kubicki from Kiel, a wealthy, unscrupulous lawyer whose notorious acid cynicism may sometimes be refreshing. Informally, his tactic job seems to be to cater to all those voters who find Lindner’s course too soft. But that’s it, and it will be difficult to bring the party back into the daylight without any notable personnel, the disastrous lack of which goes back to the long years under Guido Westerwelle as head of party from 2001 to 2011. Another curse of these years is the public image of the party: on the one hand, it narrowed its programmatic spectrum in such a way that it ended up with the not altogether unfair nickname “the party of the well-to-do”, and on the other hand, it heaped ridicule upon itself with all too playful activities such as Westerwelle’s joining the “Big Brother” show.
It now proves difficult to shed this heritage, and it doesn’t help that the party has no clear message. Some years ago, Christian Lindner, then the party’s strategist and spokesman, realizing that both the tenets of classical liberalism – individual responsibility, private property, small government – and the FDP’s bad reputation as a defender of vested (economic) interests came across as cold and widely unpopular, initiated a programmatic shift toward what he called “compassionate liberalism”. This was nothing but a shift to the left, in tune with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), then the bigger partner in the coalition. Ever since her rise to power in 2005, Merkel’s strategy has consisted in marginalizing the left Social Democrats (SPD) by occupying their traditional programmatic space. She has succeeded in bringing them down from 38,5 percent in 2002 and 34,2 percent in 2005 to only 23 percent in 2009 and 25,7 percent in 2013. As Lindner’s opportunistic imitation of Merkel’s strategy has failed, he has now turned around and calls for “pure liberalism”.
But what does that mean? As his speech in Stuttgart demonstrated, it seems easier for Lindner to say what the FDP should not be than what exactly it is he wants the party to stand for. “We’re out of parliament, which actually makes it easier to keep a distance from all those who want us to deliver some kind of privilege”, he said, thus distancing himself from the vested interests. He placed much emphasis on distancing himself also from the puzzling new extreme right movement “Pegida” in the Eastern part of Germany, where thousands demonstrate in the streets of Dresden every Monday against the alleged “Islamization of the Occident” despite the fact that only 2-5 percent of the German population are Muslims, with an even much lower ratio in the East. But Lindners positive messages remained vague: “We will make YOU big, not the state”. The only concrete new programmatic focus he announced is education, and even with such a non-original topic Lindner could not avoid a bad start. He called for maintaining the autonomy of German universities – which is commonplace. And he declared that it was time to give up the idea of competitive federalism in the field of education, arguing for a centralization of school standards – which stands in direct opposition to the traditional liberal priority given to competition and is due to sow new discord.
Actually, the political landscape has evolved in such a way that there should be room for the FDP. CDU/CSU and SPD occupy the center-left, while the right-hand side of the political spectrum is pretty empty but for the AfD. This new party is not yet represented in the Bundestag, where it obtained 4.7 percent in 2013 (almost as much as the FDP), but it is quite successful regionally and also counts 7 deputies in the European Parliament. When they started in 2013, their main thrust was economic: they opposed the government’s position in the Euro crisis and argued for letting Greece go bankrupt. This was a stance many liberals shared, and thus the AfD was then a serious rival that contributed massively to the downfall of the FDP. In the meantime, however, the AfD needed to enlarge its programmatic spectrum and has moved to the populist reactionary extreme right, now officially defending “traditional family values” (which means, in their terms, to deny homosexuals civil family rights), “traditional culture” (chiming in with “Pegida’s” racist propaganda) and anti-Nato “pacifism” (meaning an endorsement of Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s aggressive strong state policy). The room for a serious non-leftist non-reactionary party is now again wide open. Purged of some formerly dormant right populists who have eloped to the AfD, the FDP now indeed has a unique chance to start afresh.
In the past, the FDP has never been a big party. It has always been the small partner in coalitions, be it with the right or the left. It used to be a much cherished partner both for the CDU/CSU and the SPD, helping them to avoid the ideological dilemma of a grand coalition. There is no party around that could replace the FDP in that role: the Greens won’t go with the CDU/CSU and are losing weight anyway; neither the CDU nor the SPD will go with the AfD; and the SPD still holds “Die Linke” at arm’s length, the somewhat modernized but still Marxist successor of the GDR state party SED. The only problem is that the current grand coalition between Christian Democrats and SPD seems extraordinarily harmonious. It may well be that Germany will be in the hands of this grand coalition for a very long time, with extreme protest parties building up at both tails – and nothing in between. It would be a shame for the political culture in Germany and a tragedy for political liberalism.