Eliot Taylor: The FDP: on the Road to Recuperation in the Federal Republic?

Note: This contribution is the first in a series on our ‘state of the parties’ blog posts.

Just over two years since their failure to meet the required five per cent for representation in Bundestag, it is not yet clear whether 2013 was an electoral aberration or the beginning of their political decline. What is clear is that the FDP’s redemption will be difficult. If they are to once again offer a viable option in the coalition game, the coming months may prove vital.

By all accounts, 2013 was electorally disastrous for the FDP. Not only did they lose their place in the Bundestag and their vote share fell from an all-time high (14.6% in 2009) to an all-time low (4.8% in 2013), they also lost position in Land level governments in Bavaria, Hesse and Lower Saxony, following on from a miserable run of electoral defeats stretching back to 2011. Indeed, by the time of the 2013 federal election, the FDP were left with no role in Land governments in any of the old Bundesländer.

Over the past two years they have had to adapt to being an extra-parliamentary party for the first time and with that the difficulties of less public funding and media coverage. Moreover, their failure to surmount the 5% threshold in 2013 has had consequences for Germany’s political system per se, leaving the CDU/CSU without a ‘natural’ coalition partner and resulting in a significant number of voters being left ‘unrepresented’ in the Bundestag[1]. For the FDP this has been more damaging given the CDU/CSU’s recourse to a grand coalition in Berlin and their exploration of new “bottom up flows of information”[2] on the Land level such as the CDU-Green coalition in Hesse.

Electorally the party have regained their poise somewhat although it is worrying that they are now completely wiped out in the Eastern Bundesländer and that their capitulation in Saxony has left them without any representation in governing coalitions throughout the Federal Republic. Moreover, they garnered just 3.5 per cent of the vote in the 2014 European elections, which suggested that the salience of their pro-European message was losing core voters to the Eurosceptic AfD.

Alongside the FDP’s electoral tribulations is the increasingly contested political space on the centre-right of German party politics. The party has faced questions which it has hitherto never had to confront in the history of the Federal Republic. The AfD offers a right-wing populist alternative, the CDU/CSU under Merkel retains a liberal tone and the Green Party have successfully championed social liberal issues. More promising is the FDP’s successful absorption of policy positions previously occupied by the Piratenpartei. The Pirates seem to have successfully been ‘brought into orbit’ by the FDP, as is epitomised by the recent news that two former leaders of the Pirates, Sebastian Nerz and Bernd Schlömer, have switched to the FDP.

After their defeat the party replaced Phillip Rösler with Christian Lindner, who as the leader of the North-Rhine Westphalian (NRW) FDP had been able to build on his regional popularity to ensure their survival in the 2012 NRW Land elections and has been eager to embody a new course for the FDP. Overcoming the legacy of electoral stagnation and confronting a poor record in government remains a mammoth task but as David F. Patton shows, the FDP’s fate is not unprecedented in the history of the Federal Republic. In recent history both the Greens and the PDS have recovered from setbacks to return to federal prominence and regional government. However in contrast to both of the above, it appears that a merger is not an option, because although the FDP and the AfD occupy similar policy positions in a number of areas their differences over the single currency remain a major stumbling block.

Overall if 2013 and 2014 were characterised by continuing the struggles of the previous legislative period, 2015 has been a year of resurgence for the party. Their vote share in both Hamburg and Bremen’s regional elections increased. Meanwhile the Refugee crisis has presented new opportunities for the party to revitalise its image. Christian Lindner is keen for the party to remain intransigent towards the type of rhetoric which attracts Pegida protesters to the AfD, but is keen for the party to become something different to that of his predecessors. He wants the party to encompass neo-liberal policy platforms, whilst simultaneously emphasising a commitment to civil liberties, data protection and the digitalisation of administration.

For the FDP, 2016 is set to be a key year. On 13th March they face crucial regional elections in Baden-Württemberg (Ba-Wue), Rhineland Palatinate (Rh-P) and Saxony-Anhalt (SA). In SA one recent survey did not even list the FDP as a major party, whilst in both Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland Palatinate the FDP is flirting around the 5 per cent mark in recent polls. A further headache is their exclusion from an SWR Spitzenkandidaten debate in Ba-Wue, which, when contested in the federal courts, was simply scrapped completely. If the FDP fails in Ba-Wue and Rh-P it could prove especially bitter given their historic significance as liberal heartlands. Thus, to re-establish itself as a viable coalition partner on both the Land and Bund level, March must surely be seen as the first stepping stone.

The evidence of the last two years ultimately suggests that although the party has managed to stabilise under the leadership of Christian Lindner, they are still a long way from recuperation nationally: the Bundestag in 2017 is touch and go, the heights of 2009 seem a long time ago now and the security of the Bonn republic an eternity.

Eliot Taylor, Aston University


 

[1] Frank Decker, ‘Follow-up to the Grand Coalition: The German Party System before and after the 2013 Federal Election’, German Politics & Society 32, no. 2 (Summer 2014).

[2] Charles Lees, ‘Reconstituting European Social Democracy: Germany’s Pivotal Role’, German Politics 9, no. 2 (1 August 2000): 79–80.

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