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Germany

Germany's Liberals Turn 60, Look Back on Turbulent Past

Germany's free-market liberal party, the FDP which has been in the opposition since 1998 and has emerged from a diverse mix of liberalism, is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

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The FDP is, above all, a champion of economic liberalism

The Free Democrats or the FDP, Germany's liberal party, have been at the helm of power longer than they have spent time on the opposition benches in the country's checkered history.

Before the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder came to power in 1998, the FDP had spent almost 30 uninterrupted years in the governing seat. And even in the first 20 years of federal German history, the party was largely involved in running the country.

One thing the small party had to constantly watch out for was not to be overshadowed by one of the bigger parties which usually provided the chancellor -- the conservatives made up of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Following the first federal parliamentary elections in 1949, the FDP has tried to assert itself as a "third force" between the conservatives and the SPD.

It wasn't an easy thing to do for the FDP, particularly in the postwar era, when it ruled together with the conservatives led by CDU Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

Thomas Dehler, the then FDP chairman and the party's first, always drew attention to the party's independence. The FDP at the time was on its way to becoming a political home for the middle-classes.

"Opportunistic" tag

The liberals recorded their biggest electoral triumph -- over 12 percent of the vote -- in 1961 when they vowed before the elections to rule together with the conservatives, but without their chancellor Adenauer.

But, when the liberals then backtracked and decided to govern with Adenauer anyway, it earned a notorious reputation as a "opportunistic party." The reputation never did go away and came back to haunt the party every time there was speculation of a change in the government coalition.

The FDP suffered a setback after the election of 1969, when it decided to rule with the SPD and lost a huge chunk of its older so-called national liberal voters. In the following years, the party witnessed the rise of two strong distinct wings that threatened to tear it apart: the economic liberals and the social liberals.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, former FDP head and foreign minister

It was only in 1974 under party chairman Hans-Dietrich Genscher did the two manage to unite.

In the early 1970s, during the time the new Eastern bloc politics initiated by then SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt together with FDP chairman and later federal president, brought the liberals new voters.

Deepest crisis

But, the FDP faced its biggest crisis in 1982 when Genscher pushed the party to cohabit with the conservatives to rule the country during the change of government.

The move cost the FDP dearly, delivering a strong blow to the party's basic fundament. The entire social liberal wing of the party turned its back on it and the FDP was thrown out of several regional parliaments as the European Parliament.

Genscher however still considers the decision to rule together with the conservatives as unavoidable.

"I was well aware of the seriousness of the consequences and the attacks that would come," Genscher said. "It was a tough decision, but for me also a pressing need of democratic culture," Genscher said, adding that he wanted the FDP to be the first to force the early end of the legislative period that went on till the end of 1984 and call new elections.

"That was because the radical change in government needed the approval or rejection of the voters. The voters confirmed it and I think it was proof of the fact that the FDP did take the right path."

Fresh wind and "fun party"

The FDP stuck around with the conservatives as a coalition partner until 1998. But when Schröder's SPD and the Greens came to power, the liberals had to once again get used to a forgotten role -- that of the opposition.

Guido Westerwelle spielt Ball

Young and savvy, Westerwelle has injected the FDP with some fresh blood

Guido Westerwelle, Secretary-General of the FDP since 1994 and then the youngest chairman at 40 starting 2001, brought some much-needed fresh blood to the party.

The "Jack of all trades" -- as his admirers and later his critics called him -- tried to give the FDP a makeover, saying he wanted to "reinvent" it. He did manage to an extent, but failed when he ambitiously attempted to convert the "small coalition partner" and "kingmaker" into a party for "the masses."

Westerwelle's spectacular election campaigns with their goal of winning "18 percent" of the vote and use of colorful campaign gimmicks led to the FDP fighting to shake off its image as a "fun party."

Westerwelle however was prepared to draw lessons from it.

"A part of the criticism is completely unjustified, a part is vague and a part is entirely true and we have to get better there," Westerwelle said. "The FDP leadership has to get better and even my work has to get better."

Champions of economic liberalism

The FDP then went on the offensive with a radical tax policy, vowed to privatize social insurance in order to lower non-wage labor costs -- in other words the FDP today promise more individual responsibility and minimal state intervention.

The liberals briefly rediscovered the conservatives as a favorite coalition partner and thus strode into the election campaign last year with the intention of forming a government together with the CDU and the CSU.

But that was not meant to be. The FDP's favorite coalition partner did form the government, but with the SPD while the liberals were banished to the opposition.

However the silver lining, if there is one, is that for the first time in its 60-year existence, the FDP is the strongest of the three current opposition parties.

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