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Feisty Lindner re-elected as head of potential kingmakers FDP

Thirty-eight-year-old Christian Lindner will lead the Free Democrats as they attempt to rejoin the Bundestag. The FDP could well help form the next government, but for now it's going on the attack.

The Free Democratic Party says it wants to attract votes because of its platform. But among Germany's smaller parties, the FDP is the one most dependent on the charisma of its leader. And reflecting that, Christian Lindner was re-elected on Friday by 91 percent of the ballots of delegates to the FDP's three-day conference in Berlin.

The party faithful hope that the energetic and camera-friendly 38-year-old will help them attract at least five percent of the vote in September's national election - the minimum required for representation in the Bundestag. The FDP failed to clear that hurdle in 2013. It was a humiliating result for a centrist party that was represented in the Bundestag for 64 straight years and was part of 17 government cabinets.

In his keynote address, Lindner, who has chaired the party since the 2013 debacle, said the Free Democrats had spent four long years in the political wilderness and had emerged stronger for it.

"The entire FDP has changed," Lindner told the delegates. "Extra-parliamentary opposition is a tough business. After 1315 days outside of parliament, nothing is going to knock this party off its feet very quickly."

Bundestagswahl Reaktion FDP Rainer Brüderle Philipp Rösler (Reuters)

The old guard led the FDP to a historic collapse in 2013

Recent polls show the FDP clearing the five-percent hurdle both locally in upcoming elections in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein and nationally. Buoyed by those numbers, Lindner said that, while the FDP's national comeback wasn't complete, the party's chances were looking up.

"Who would have thought that in 2013?" Lindner asked, drawing cheers from the crowd.

Attack dogs, not lap dogs

The Free Democrats were hurt in the last German national election by the perception that they were lap dogs of their preferred coalition partners, the conservative CDU-CSU under Chancellor Angela Merkel. So it was significant that Lindner began by attacking a policy of the conservatives, the controversial Autobahn toll on passenger vehicles championed by the CSU's Alexander Dobrindt.

And he was pains to present the FDP as the solution to what he characterized as torpor under the Merkel-led grand coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats.

Deutschland FDP-Bundesparteitag in Berlin (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Skolimowska)

Lindner has breathed new life into a moribund party

"Germany has sleepwalked though the past four years," Lindner said. "We renewed ourselves in order to renew Germany. The time to stand by and watch is over."

The party conference emblem is an open fire, symbolizing the burning questions of today, and some of the delegates wore bright yellow t-shirts featuring images of fire extinguishers.

Lindner directly criticized Merkel on the topic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying that the chancellor had been too conciliatory and that the Turkish candidacy for EU membership should be declared dead.

"The entire government policy toward Turkey has failed," Lindner said. "It's time for a new beginning."

Jabs to the right and left

Another long term problem for the laissez-faire liberal FDP has been the perception that it is a one-issue party: tax cuts for more affluent Germans. So it was a signal that Lindner initially stressed education over the tax system as a way of promoting social fairness. The FDP leader called for more federal influence on education, which is under the jurisdiction of Germany's 16 local states.

But it wouldn't be an FDP party speech without a call for a tax cut, and Lindner obliged, delivering an extended excoriation of conservative Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble for failing to lower taxes.

Berlin FDP-Parteitag (DW/J. Chase)

Some supporters turned out wearing the FDP's signature yellow

Lindner did not neglect to attack the parties on the left, either. The FDP leader dismissed Social Democratic chairman and chancellor candidate Martin Schulz as an economic neophyte. He promised that if elected to the government in North Rhine-Westphalia, the FDP would seek to roll back Green Party-sponsored environmental regulations he said were hurting the economy. And he recalled his anger at the rival Green Party cheering the FDP's downfall.

"I swore that the final image in the history of the FDP would not be the Greens celebrating our failure to get into the Bundestag," Lindner said, drawing the loudest applause of his eighty-minute speech.

He attacked both Merkel's government and the parliamentary opposition on the issue of refugees, saying that rules and procedures had been completely abandoned as hundreds of thousands migrants entered Germany with minimal supervision.

In the past, the Free Democrats have often been accused of prioritizing political coalitions over policies. Linder's combative speech clearly aimed at dispelling that impression. He sought to portray the Free Democrats as a strong opposition party, not a potential coalition partner.

"We are not going to squander this chance at a comeback," Lindner said. "We're going into this election without saying anything about coalitions. We're not going to make ourselves into mindless tools of one coalition or another."

Deutschland FDP-Bundesparteitag in Berlin (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Skolimowska)

The youthful party head appeals to young and old

Liking Lindner

The FDP's electoral disaster in 2013 was precipitated by perceptions of Lindner's predecessors, Guido Westerwelle and Philipp Rösler, as political lightweights. In the 38-year-old, the Free Democrats have both a feistier and more charismatic leader.

"I think it's important for voters to be able to identify the party with a person," said Diana Flemmig, a 28-year-old conference delegate from Brandenburg. "We don't vote for individuals in Germany, but personalities define the party nonetheless."

Lindner's performance thus far this year seems to have given the Free Democrats a bounce. The party, which as recently as 2015 was bleeding members, has registered 3571 new ones thus far in 2017. And the party is appealing to younger people again.

"I think that the FDP will definitely make it into the Bundestag," said 18-year-old Julius Kalaitzi-Hack from Hessen, one of the FDP's more recent joiners. "We're already over 5 percent in the polls, and I think that number will only go up as the national election gets closer."

And what does the old guard, traditionally famous for conflicts of interest and personal ambition, and older party members think? Amidst renewed prospects of political success, they're on board with the youth movement.

"I think Mr. Lindner is super," says Elke Dietrich, 52, from North Rhine-Westphalia. "He also comes across very well on television. He's definitely got my vote."

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