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Germany

German free-market liberals back from the dead

Germany's business-oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP) is technically still in government, but to all intents and purposes the party is dead. The question now is whether its new leader, Christian Lindner, can revive it.

In the United States, you have to be at least 35 years of age before you can be elected president. In Germany, you can be 40 years young and already have your political career behind you.

This is what has happened to the FDP's Phillip Rösler, who at the moment is still Chancellor Merkel's deputy, the so-called Vice-Chancellor. He will lose this office just before Christmas, when Merkel's conservatives and the left-of-center Social Democrats put ink on their heavily debated coalition agreement.

But that's not the only office Rösler is losing. He's also stepped down as FDP chairman following his party's historic defeat in the general election in September. The German electorate ejected the FDP from the Bundestag - the lower house of parliament, which it had been a part of since its inception 64 years ago - by giving the party less than five percent of the vote.

Christian Lindner speaking at the FDP party conference

Will the new star provide enough energy to revive FDP?

Youthful bearer of hope

The FDP has been part of more governments in post-war Germany than any other party. It supplied Germany's first president, Theodor Heuss, in 1949, and one of the world's most influential foreign ministers, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, from 1974 until 1992.

A look back at German history, and the history of the FDP, is proof that the party's fall from grace truly is a "historic milestone."

This was the language used by Christian Lindner, the new head of the party, who was elected at the FDP annual conference this weekend with some 80 percent of the vote.

Wahlplakate aus drei Jahrzehnten

Hans-Dietrich Genscher was one of Germany's most influential foreign ministers

Like Rösler, he is young: just 34 years of age. The resounding majority of FDP members, however, are confident that Lindner is mature enough to lead their party better than Rösler. At this weekend's conference in Berlin Rösler took responsibility for the FDP's fall from grace, saying that what he found most painful was his failure to live up to his own, and the party's, expectations.

New start - in opposition

According to Lindner, who is now at the FDP helm, the party is at the beginning of a process of resurgence, which will start off in a new arena - the opposition.

In Berlin, he pronounced an immediate end to the "period of mourning" that the party had been experiencing since the federal election, and defended the FDP's stance during the past four years in coalition with Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

In his first speech as party head, he also paid tribute to the FDP's historical contributions to the development of modern Germany, such as the implementation of the social market economy in the 1950s, a new modern social politics in the 70s, and battling Germany's sovereign debt since the 1990s.

Lindner and Rösler in Berlin

Out with the young, in with the ... young: Lindner with Rösler (right)

Judging by September's election results, however, voters weren't interested in the extent to which the Free Democrats contributed to these developments. Lindner indicated that FDP could not rest on old laurels; the strengths of yesteryear must be given new life. In other words, his party must resurrect political liberalism in Germany, which seems to have given up the ghost.

Lindner's objective is to make it back into the Bundestag in the 2017 federal election. But some FDP supporters may secretly be hoping for a snap election - a hope encouraged by what seemed to be tricky coalition negotiations between the CDU and the SPD.

The SPD has yet to approve the coalition. Lindner and his new team, however, are not looking to focus on the weakness of the competition. It's time to concentrate on the "party's strengths," he stressed, with a sense of optimism that's been sorely missed in the FDP ranks for some years now.

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