After a turbulent year, the Free Democreats projected confidence at a party congress in Nuremberg. Party infighting has subsided, and the FDP has recorded successes in state elections. But the future remains uncertain.
Expectations for Germany's economically liberal Free Democrats (FDP) were in the gutter at the start of the year. Only optimists thought a respectable showing in this fall's federal elections would be possible. And given the party's poll numbers in January, few believed the party would be able to continue its coalition with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).
But signs at the party's weekend conference in Nuremberg from May 4-5 suggest the tide may be turning, even if the FDP's poll numbers continue to hover at best around 5 percent nationally. If they secure any less than 5 percent in the official vote on September 22, they will be booted from the Bundestag, Germany's parliament.
Back in the saddle
Unexpected successes for the FDP in state elections have saved the controversial party head Philipp Rösler.
"The FDP does not win polls, but it does win votes," said Bavaria' Minister for Economic Affairs Martin Zeil in reference to the party's take of between eight and 10 percent of votes in several recent state elections, where poll numbers had been much lower.
At a previous party congress in early March, the economy minister and deputy governor of Bavaria was re-elected to his post on the FDP Federal Executive Board. Since then, he and the party's chair in parliament, Rainer Brüderle, have appeared to be on agreeable terms. Rösler is firmly back in the saddle, and Brüderle is the horse pulling the campaign ahead.
Long gone is the infighting from the beginning of the year when Germany's development minister, Dirk Niebel, openly called for an end to Rösler's tenure as party chief. But Brüderle reiterated support for the 40-year-old FDP leader at the party's convention in Nuremberg, saying, "We are a team that sometimes fights, but that has the right compass."
As such, the party seems to have shifted from fearing for its existence to pushing for an election victory. Rainer Brüderle is the FDP's lead candidate in September's election, and it will fall to him to bolster the party's standing as much as possible in the meantime.
Rösler applauds the convention speech of Brüderle, who will lead the party into the national elections in September
In Nuremberg, Brüderle triumphantly announced that his party's coalition with Merkel's conservatives is currently leading in the polls - an unusual remark from a man who often dismisses opinion polls as worthless. Unsurprisingly, Brüderle chose to gloss over the fact that the FDP has been under the requisite 5-percent mark in most polls conducted within the last year.
But it is true that the prospect of another four years at Merkel's side have improved for the FDP. Rainer Brüderle repeated the chancellor's praise that the current governing coalition represents "the best government since German reunification," and went on to assert boldly that the FDP has improved its coalition partners. The FDP deserves credit, Brüderle says, for moves that include abolishing compulsory military service for young people, strengthening civil rights, reducing bureaucracy in the health system and securing more money for education.
Brüderle continued by saying that the FDP has helped return the Federal Ministry of Economics to its appropriate role, rather than allowing it to hand out bailouts. He cited the center-right party's opposition to giving taxpayer money to the crisis-ridden auto manufacturer Opel as well as to the now defunct drugstore chain Schlecker.
On that point, critics blasted the FDP for what they saw as unsympathetic free market posturing, but the party itself views the move as motivated by an impulse toward fairness for the middle class.
France a 'time bomb'
Brüderle has for decades made Germany's traditionally strong middle class a centerpiece of his approach to politics. For years, he served as the finance minister in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate as well as for a brief time in Angela Merkel's cabinet.
"Countries without a middle class are always threatened in terms of freedom," he said at the FDP's gathering in Nuremberg. And Brüderle said he sees particular dangers ahead for France under its socialist president, Francois Hollande. The future of Europe, Brüderle believes, will be decided not in Athens and Nicosia, but in France - due to troubling unemployment and debt figures as well as a lack of competitive ability.
Germany's neighbor is a "time bomb in the heart of Europe," Brüderle claimed, quoting the cover of a 2012 edition of the "Economist" magazine. And the 67-year-old stressed that he rejects any proposals of sharing debt with France, dismissing it as "debt socialism."
To sharpen his party's position, the FDP's lead candidate described his party as "a bulwark against Eurobonds."
Opposition to a 'brutal tax-raiser'
Brüderle's choice of words and topics often echoed those of party head Philipp Rösler on the previous day. And many words flew when it came to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Greens, the two parties vying to depose Angela Merkel's center-right coalition government.
The SPD's chancellor candidate, Peer Steinbrück, is "a brutal tax-raiser," who will cost Germans 40 billion Euro (52.4 billion Dollar), said Brüderle. The SPD and Greens last governed as a coalition from 1998 to 2005. He went on to call a Green Party proposal to do away with tax benefits for married couples a "dispossession program for Germany's hard-working people and families."
What followed was a warning to voters, as Brüderle cautioned that since the SPD and Greens will not have enough support for a majority, they will have to pursue their "redistribution fantasies" by recruiting the socialist Left party to join their coalition. There was no talk, however, of the FDP joining an SPD-Green coalition.
As Philipp Rösler had stressed during his speech, the FDP hopes to continue its partnership with Angela Merkel's conservatives - not out of "eternal love and appreciation," but because the FDP leaders believe the government has worked well so far.