Tuesday, August 25, 2009

At the Crossroads: The State of the FDP

In current polls, the alleged "small" Free Democratic Party (FDP) is estimated to get up to 16 percent of the votes in the upcoming elections (Infratest dimap). Being a rather middle-class party, the FDP naturally benefits from the CDU/CSU's weakness by attracting disappointed conservative voters. However, the success of an economic liberal party in times of a financial crisis -- many call it surprising, some even cynical -- raises new issues: Is the strength of the FDP still caused by the weakness of the CDU/CSU or do the Liberals owe their success to their own societal ideas? What might indicate the FDP reaching a new level of importance?

First, the Liberals have received an increased share of the vote in the federal state parliamentary elections in 2008 and 2009, especially in Bavaria and Hesse, rising from 2.6% (2003) to 8.0% (2008) and from 7.9% (2003) to 16.2% (2009), respectively. Thus, they participate in the governments of these states, and, more important, they have become essential for statutes requiring the assent of the Bundesrat, Germany's second chamber. Although the Bavarian and Hessian FDP still benefit from the CDU/CSU's weakness, results of these elections give an opportunity to prove one's worth in government.

Secondly, the FDP has been strengthened internally, too: Unlike the "big parties" CDU/CSU and SPD, the FDP has not lost but gained new party members. In addition to higher capabilities, more members allow the party to exert additional influence in society. Becoming more important, the FDP may no longer be regarded as a mere "Mehrheitsbeschaffer" (majority engineer).

Finally, not only the political and societal influence of the Liberals but also the society itself is in flux, in particular Germany's attitude towards liberal values like freedom, individualism, and achievement. DeutschlandTrend August (tagesschau.de) still indicates voters to give preference to "solidarity" (a classically social democratic value) over "achievement" (a liberal one). However, the voters' understanding of solidarity seems to differ from the one of the SPD: For example, when zu Guttenberg (Minister for Economic Affairs, CSU) was -- unlike the SPD -- against rescuing Opel and therefore estimated economical efficiency higher than solidarity, many voters agreed with him. Aside from economical considerations, the fact that zu Guttenberg's opinion was well received indicates a liberal attitude: Solidarity shall not be practiced as an end in itself. Thus, do not help those whose survival won't help you.

Summing up, the Liberals may expect an increase of votes in the upcoming election. But what do their new voters expect from the Liberals? A campaign slogan of the FDP says: "Deutschland kann es besser." ("Germany can do better.") "Better" means: Better than the grand coalition. According to DeutschlandTrend August, 94 percent of the potential liberal voters prefer a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition to the grand coalition. For many of them voting for the FDP is the only option to ensure that Merkel -- who is very popular -- remains chancellor without continuing the alliance with the SPD.

On the 20th of September, the FDP is going to hold a special party conference, where the Liberals' top candidate Westerwelle is expected to make a statement about probable coalitions. As likely as not, he will favor Angela Merkel.

In case of "Schwarz-Gelb" (CDU/CSU-FDP coalition), the Liberals will have to make their mark in politics over the next four years. Because if they don't take advantage of their situation, the success of the FDP might go down as a cyclical fluctuation.

--Oskar Fischer

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