While the leader of Germany's Free Democratic Party (FDP) is still eyeing a role in government, experts say the party -- as opposition leader -- needs to get better at selling its plans to the public.
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Since Germany's national election on Sept. 18, Guido Westerwelle has had some time to relax. Usually a frequent guest on TV talk shows, the leader of Germany's free-market, liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) virtually disappeared from the small screen.
For weeks, he basked quietly in his future role as leader of Germany's largest opposition party as Social Democrats and Christian Democrats scrambled to cozy up to each other in an attempt to form the next government.
Then this week Franz Müntefering, the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) leader, announced his resignation after a key power struggle, throwing his party into turmoil. Suddenly, a grand coalition of SPD and CDU/CSU parties seemed less likely again.
Not a realistic government alternative in Germany right now
Westerwelle was back on television and rekindled talk of an alternative government line-up that's much more to his liking: The so-called Jamaica coalition of CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens -- not quite as perfect as cooperating with just the conservatives, but still superior to a government led by CDU/CSU and SPD.
"It would be better to seriously sound out this (Jamaica) option," he said.
A record i n gover n i n g
While it's hard to blame Westerwelle for preferring government to opposition, experts said such a shift was highly unlikely at the moment as the Greens and Free Democrats were not yet ready to work together.
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"Westerwelle's completely unrealistic statement is only meant to remind people that the FDP still exists," said Hans Vorländer, a political science professor at Dresden's Technical University, who has written extensively about the party.
Governing, however, is also a state of affairs the FDP is much more familiar with: Since Germany became a federal republic in 1949, the party has been in power for 41 years -- longer than any other.
A cha n ce for reinvention
But remaining in opposition could benefit the FDP in the long run as it will be able to push for its reform course without having to compromise and win over disgruntled conservative voters, Vorländer said.
"If they want to, they can embark on a fundamental course of neoliberal opposition," he added.
Guided by its motto -- "As much government as needed, as little government as possible" -- the party has always championed liberal social policies and liberalization of the economic sector, calling for tax cuts to be paid for by cuts in state subsidies such as billions of euros for coal mining.
But others said they hoped party officials would look beyond garnering a few votes on the basis of neoliberal reforms.
"The FDP has a giant chance to reform itself," said Jürgen Dittberner, a political science professor at Potsdam University and himself a long-time party member. He added that Westerwelle and others should lead a discussion on how social justice and economic liberalization can be combined.
High-ranking party officials said that people had to be convinced of the benefits of reforms.
"It's understandable that people are worried if they're not told about the goal of reforms," said Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a deputy party leader. "We have to tell people that we can only secure the social welfare systems with reforms that have been carefully thought through."
The former justice minister added that her party also needed to make sure that it didn't limit itself to economic issues and would also be heard on other topics such as education, research and civil rights.
This was echoed by the leader of the party's youth wing, which meets in Berlin Friday for its national convention.
"We have to have a holistic program," said Johannes Vogel, a 23-year-old political science student from Bonn. He added that by explaining plans better, party officials might be able to win over new voters among those who feel threatened by further labor market reforms.
Fi n di n g the right words
Vogel also said the FDP's recent decision to market itself as the "neosocial" party was a step in the right direction in this respect.
Vorländer on the other hand saw the word "neosocial" as the party's helpless attempt to get away from the stigma of neoliberal coldness. But he added that FDP officials should stick to their program and convince people of its benefits.
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"They have to make it clear that their radical reforms are socially just, because they would give people the opportunity to return to work," he said.
"Socially liberal," an old phrase associated with the party, might come in handy in that respect, Vorländer added.
"It could be recycled to show that the FDP's program can be called social and (economic) liberal."