After election defeat, the FDP goes grassroots | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 04.01.2014
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After election defeat, the FDP goes grassroots

Following September's elections, Germany's pro-business Free Democratic Party is no longer in the federal government nor in the national parliament. But the party is already hard at work to turn things around by 2017.

Max Erdmann was still in school when he first saw Guido Westerwelle in person during an appearance by the latter in Bonn. At the time, Westerwelle was head of the pro-business liberal Free Democrats (FDP). Erdmann, now a 21-year-old law student, says he was immediately taken with the politician's personality: "He was always very charismatic." Seeing Westerwelle speak confirmed for the student that he wanted to join the FDP at some point, but he took his time.

During federal elections in September 2013, the FDP was removed from parliament for failing to meet the 5 percent vote hurdle required for parliamentary representation. Prior to those polls, the FDP had served in Chancellor Merkel's governing coalition. Now the Free Democrats are merely part of the extraparliamentary opposition. Two weeks after September's disappointing outcome, Erdmann became a member of the FDP. "Now's the time more than ever," as he put it.

The law student in Bonn is one of over 2,000 new members the party reports as having joined its ranks since the election defeat.

"In [the state of] North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) alone, there are around 400 to 500 newcomers," said the party's press spokesman in NRW, Moritz Kracht, adding, "We're currently experiencing heavy influx into the party."

A congress held recently in Düsseldorf, the capital of NRW, for new members and other interested voters drew more citizens than ever before, Kracht said.

Back to core issues

The most recent federal polls served as a wake-up call for many of the party's members and sympathizers. Max Erdmann watched in dismay as the results came in on TV, saying he had expected a better showing.

Nonetheless, he has a theory about what happened: "The result was the logical consequence of the party's policies at the federal level." Erdmann believes the FDP made its focus too narrow.

"I think the FDP has to concentrate once again on the issues of classical liberalism rather than tax policy," Erdmann argues, noting there are plenty of areas where such issues come into play, "For example, the EU policies on data preservation, the NSA affair, limits on rental unit prices and the topic of public pensions."

Portrait Max Erdmann (Photo: private)

New FDP-member Max Erdmann

Moritz Kracht is convinced that his party has successfully worked through what the election meant. Now, Kracht says, it's about getting voters to see the FDP as embracing its classical liberal principles again. "That's why we're encouraging local party supporters to conduct events where people can enter into a conversation with the FDP," the party's NRW spokesman tells DW.

Getting to know a party involves personal contact more than anything, Kracht believes.

Starting from the ground up

In NRW, the Free Democrats are counting on a grassroots approach to bring voters back. Active party members like Christian Koch have an important role to play along the way. Koch lives in Bornheim, a city with nearly 50,000 residents near Bonn. He represents the FDP in the city council there.

"Our local agenda has been in sharp contrast to the approach at the federal level in recent years," Koch says. In Bornheim, they are trying to focus on the issues that affect residents in concrete ways - tackling road construction and shopping centers rather than tax policy.

"The party needs to be rebuilt from the ground up," Koch believes.

State and federal party leaders have sent similar signals. A state convention reserved solely for the FDP elite in the past was recently opened to all members, who were offered a chance to help come up with the party's new direction.

"The party is trying to open itself up more in order to see what its base wants," says Koch of the FDP's re-orientation in his state.

Christian Lindner smiles during an event. (Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa)

The FDP's new head, Christian Lindner, aims to lead the party into a new era

Back to basics

The FDP has gained three new members in Bornheim since the party's federal defeat in September. "For a local chapter with 30 members, that's actually quite a few," Koch notes.

He's trying to integrate them into the party ahead of local elections slated in NRW for May 2014. The 21-year-old student Erdmann may even run for city council then.

"That's still being decided," he said. But aside from May's elections, Erdmann plans to start getting involved in local politics - perhaps by helping out in his chapter's press office.

The engagement of young Free Democrats like Erdmann and Koch is one sign that the FDP has been shaken into action by September's debacle.

"It's a new beginning," as NRW's FDP spokesman Kracht puts it. But there's still a long way to go before the next federal election, slated for 2017.

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