The most recent public opinion poll puts the opposition business-friendly Free Democrats, or FDP, only four points behind the Social Democrats. Are Germans really going laissez-faire, or are the numbers deceiving?
2009 could be a banner year for the Free Democrats
A poll of 2,502 representative German citizens, which was published on Wednesday, February 18, put the level of support for the FDP at 18 percent. It's the second week in a row that the party has achieved that result in the poll, which has a margin of error of 2.5 percent.
The Social Democrats (SPD) dropped a point to 22 percent, suggesting that one of Germany's two traditional major parties enjoys only slightly more support than what has historically been a niche party.
With the Conservatives holding steady at 34 percent, the poll also implies that the grouping of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and FDP would command a solid majority if the national election scheduled for September were held today.
By contrast, the three left-wing parties -- the SPD and the two opposition parties, the Left Party and the Greens, -- would only garner 44 percent of the vote.
At least on the surface, the numbers represent an astonishing turnaround for the FDP, which as recently as 2002 had to worry about clearing the five-percent hurdle required for a party to be represented in the German parliament.
But observers disagree about what, if anything, the numbers really mean.
Achievement or windfall?
FDP General Secretary Niebel, left, says conservatives have gone too social-democratic
The head of the organization that carried out the poll, Manfred Guellner, says the FDP numbers reflect the dissatisfaction of right-wing voters with the compromise policies of Conservatives in their grand coalition with the SPD.
Voters are "scared that words like nationalization and socialization are no longer taboo for Conservatives," Guellner said in an interview with Stern, the magazine that co-commissioned the poll.
FDP General Secretary Dirk Niebel agreed with the assessment.
"We're basically being ruled by two different social democratic parties with different party colors," Niebel told the AP news agency, adding that the FDP would insist on a coalition that reflected its free-market, low-tax agenda.
But Horst Seehofer -- the head of the Bavarian CSU -- said the poll numbers were mere "windfall profits," i.e. undeserved gains made without any achievement on the FDP's part.
"We are a broad-based and not a clientele party," Seehofer told the Rheinische Post newspaper. "And a modern broad-based party takes account of social, economic, ecological and national-traditional issues."
But the party's previous "Project 18" was a disaster
What's likely is that the FDP is benefitting from a general dissatisfaction with Germany's two largest parties in troubled economic times.
The Social Democrats in particular, and the left in general, have lost appeal because the SPD leadership has been seen as weak, and the party has few opportunities to shine as the junior partners of the grand coalition.
Meanwhile, personnel and ideological disagreements such as those surrounding the recent sudden resignation of former Economics Minister Michael Glos have hurt public perceptions of the Conservatives' ability to lead effectively.
But the FDP may find it difficult to maintain momentum since significant numbers of Germans hold free-market policies like those advanced by the Free Democrats to be partially responsible for the country's economic woes.
And history should give party members pause for thought. In the 2002 parliamentary elections, the FDP launched a "Project 18" publicity campaign aimed at garnering that percentage of support.
In the end, the party's leading candidate only received 6.1 percent of the vote.