German liberals stage comeback in the race for election bronze

Image-obsessed FDP hopes to win back enough support to be coalition kingmaker

FDP leader Christian Lindner has framed his party’s return for its pro-business voters as a successful reflotation. Photograph: David Hecker/EPA

FDP leader Christian Lindner has framed his party’s return for its pro-business voters as a successful reflotation. Photograph: David Hecker/EPA

 

With one of Germany’s highest concentration of millionaires, Potsdam promises easy pickings for the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

The liberal party traditionally attracts lawyers, doctors and dentists, united in their love of Barbour jackets. As they queue for glasses of crémant, the local FDP candidate on stage mutters something not usually associated with her party: “Demut – humility.

It’s a coded reference to the great humiliation of 2013 when even its own voters found the FDP surplus to requirements and the party crashed out of parliament.

Four years on from political insolvency, mercurial FDP leader Christian Lindner has framed his party’s return for its pro-business voters as a successful reflotation.

With the party nudging 10 per cent in polls, the 38-year-old leader hopes to lure back enough former supporters to ensure it finishes in third place as coalition kingmaker. Just to be sure, however, Lindner has used the campaign to broaden the FDP’s base beyond top-earners to Germany’s forgotten middle, also known as Leo Varadkar’s early risers.

These people, Lindner tells the nodding Potsdam audience, deserve “recognition, not envy”.

“There’s lots of talk about the fringes, the refugees and the extremists, but not the millions of people not dependent on solidarity but who show it,” says Lindner, one of the few rhetorical talents in German federal politics. “Their money comes in but goes out again, something we have to change for the middle of society.”

Few USPs

More than any other, the FDP is a party obsessed with self-image and promotion yet, behind the flashy marketing, its programme contains few unique selling propositions. Like other parties, it is demanding reform of Germany’s centralised school system and a rapid, nationwide rollout of high-speed broadband.

And, unusually for a small-state, liberal party it is demanding more bureaucracy – a digital ministry – to future-proof German industry and government. And the pro-business party’s campaign promise to put “digital first, digital concerns second” clashes with Lindner’s insistence – in Potsdam and elsewhere – that citizens must retain control of their data, the currency of the digital era.

In a risky move to pull in a broader voter base, the pro-business party has confronted the car industry by demanding it spend billions to retrofit engines with noxious diesel emissions.

The FDP agrees with calls for Germany to invest in its rusting infrastructure but dismisses as “voodoo economics” foreign expectations a big public spending programme to reduce Germany’s distorting deficit.

If returned to power, most likely as junior partner to chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), the FDP promises no radical shift on Brexit and says it will block French proposals for mutual euro debt or a euro-zone budget.

Linder was widely condemned, including by Merkel, for suggesting the European Union should resign itself to the occupation of Crimea and lift EU sanctions on Russia.

With his eye on third place, Lindner’s bronze ambition is most under threat from the far-right upstart Alternative für Deutschland.

Asylum law

Anxious not to lose FDP voters to the AfD over the refugee crisis fallout, Linder demands Germany stick to the letter of the law on asylum and deport people after the threat in their homeland passes. In Potsdam he brushes off claims he is competing with the AfD, which he calls an “authoritarian party that cannot draw a line against Jewish hatred and is a threat our open society”.

While his speech draws loud applause from the core FDP audience – two-thirds men, in Ralph Lauren shirts and brightly-coloured trousers between 20 and 60 – others on the sidelines remember the party’s broken promises on tax cuts in the past.

Lindner has learned from that experience and is avoiding concrete promises this time around. But as the FDP’s four-year march out of the political wilderness reaches its end, not even the party leader can predict what will happen when polls close at 6pm on Sunday week.

In what will probably be a crowded, six-party Bundestag, the FDP seats may not be enough for a Merkel majority, requiring her to take in a third party such as the Greens.

“That would be a catastrophe,” said Melinda (45), a tax consultant at the Potsdam rally. “The FDP and Greens cannot talk the same language, let alone agree on policy.”  

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