Will This Young Centrist Become Kingmaker After the German Election?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s young, charismatic — and leading his party back to power.
By Jefferson Chase and Rebecca Staudenmaier
The Free Democratic Party (FDP) says it wants to attract votes with its business-friendly platform. But among Germany’s smaller parties, the FDP is the one most dependent on the charisma of its leader, Christian Lindner.
“I think it’s important for voters to be able to identify the party with a person,” Diana Flemmig, a 28-year-old delegate from Brandenburg, said at the party conference in April. “We don’t vote for individuals in Germany, but personalities define the party nonetheless.”
The party faithful hope that the energetic and camera-friendly 38-year-old will help them attract at least 5 percent of the vote in September’s national election, the minimum required for representation in the Bundestag. The FDP failed to clear that hurdle in 2013 in a humiliating defeat for a party that enjoyed 64 straight years in the Bundestag and was part of 17 government cabinets.
Lindner, who has chaired the party since the 2013 debacle, said the Free Democrats had spent four long years in the political wilderness and have emerged stronger for it. “The entire FDP has changed,” Lindner told delegates at a party conference in April, where he was re-elected chairman by 91 percent.
Whether Lindner comes across as charismatic or power hungry is up for debate.
One of the long-term problems for the laissez-faire liberal FDP has been the perception that it is a one-issue party: tax cuts for more affluent Germans. To broaden their appeal, Lindner has added education to the party’s economic agenda, promising to invest more in schools and universities.
The FDP’s electoral disaster was precipitated by perceptions that Lindner’s predecessors, Guido Westerwelle and Philipp Rösler, were political lightweights. In the 38-year-old, the Free Democrats have both a feistier and more charismatic leader.
Lindner has cultivated an easygoing but sharp persona. On talk-show panels, he banters with studio audiences almost as frequently as with his political rivals.
Whether Lindner comes across as charismatic or power hungry is up for debate. The FDP leader may have memorized his lines, but he also knows how to deliver them, which sets him apart from his much older political rivals in Germany.
The party’s strategy of change — and using Lindner as the face of that change — appears to be working. The FDP won 12.6 percent of the vote in the North Rhine-Westphalia state election — jolting up 4 percentage points and snagging a coalition deal with the Christian Democrats (CDU) to govern Germany’s most populous state.
The party made similar gains in Schleswig-Holstein’s state election and also landed a coalition deal with the CDU and the Greens. Recent poll numbers show the FDP easily clearing the 5 percent hurdle to get back into the Bundestag.
“There is a sense of creative optimism in the FDP,” Lindner said of his party’s potential comeback in July.
What hurt the Free Democrats in the last German national election was the perception that they were lapdogs of their preferred coalition partners, the conservative CDU-CSU under Merkel. To break from the past, Lindner has attacked conservative policies, including a controversial highway toll championed by the CSU’s Alexander Dobrindt.
He has also criticized Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015 and campaigned for stricter immigration measures. Lindner directly criticized Merkel on the topic of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying that the chancellor had been too conciliatory and that the Turkish candidacy for EU membership should be declared dead.
Lindner has gone after parties on the left as well. The FDP leader dismissed Social Democratic (SPD) chairman and chancellor candidate Martin Schulz as an economic neophyte. He also holds no love for the Green party, saying that their environmental regulations hurt the economy.
Recently, Lindner’s comments about the future of Germany’s ties with Russia sparked backlash from across the political spectrum. In an interview in early August, the FDP head said Germany may have to accept Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine as “a lasting provisional state of affairs.”
“We have to get out of a dead-end situation,” Lindner told the Funke Media Group on August 5. He added that the West should consider loosening sanctions on Russia as incentive for progress in other areas of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Lindner’s comments on foreign policy carry particular weight, as he could well become Germany’s next foreign minister. In past coalitions with the CDU, the post of foreign minister has frequently gone to an FDP politician.
In the past, the Free Democrats have often been accused of prioritizing political coalitions over policies. For months, Linder has sought to portray the Free Democrats as a strong opposition party, not a potential coalition partner. “We’re going into this election without saying anything about coalitions. We’re not going to make ourselves into mindless tools of one coalition or another,” he said in April.
Lindner’s performance thus far this year seems to have given the Free Democrats a bounce. The party, which as recently as 2015 was bleeding members, has registered 3,571 new ones so far in 2017. And the party is appealing to younger people again.
“I think that the FDP will definitely make it into the Bundestag,” said 18-year-old Julius Kalaitzi-Hack from Hessen, one of the FDP’s new recruits. “We’re already over 5 percent in the polls, and I think that number will only go up as the national election gets closer.”
And what does the old guard and older party members think? Amid renewed prospects of political success, they’re on board with the youth movement.
“I think Mr. Lindner is super,” said Elke Dietrich, 52, from North Rhine-Westphalia. “He also comes across very well on television. He’s definitely got my vote.”
This article is brought to you through OZY’s partnership with Deutsche Welle.
- Jefferson Chase and Rebecca Staudenmaier, OZY Author Contact Jefferson Chase and Rebecca Staudenmaier