In an effort to draw 18 percent of voters, the Free Democrats began flirting with right-wing populists. But that doesn't make it the Haider party of Germany, a leading political scientist tells DW-WORLD.
Are Jürgen Möllemann and Guido Westerwelle surfing Europe's right-wing wave?
The recent political locking of horns between the Free Democrats' second-in-command, Jürgen Möllemann, and Germany's largest Jewish organization damaged the FDP and led many to allege that its leaders are doing free trade in anti-Semitism.
Adding to the harm, the FDP has been accused of transforming itself into a magnet for right-wing populist voters in a cynical ploy to become a coalition partner in the next German government.
Some have even started to depict FDP chairman Guido Westerwelle's deputy, Möllemann, as a German incarnation of Austria's Jörg Haider, France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, or Holland's recently slain Pim Fortuyn. In other words, they view Möllemann, who is the party's chief in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, as a political opportunist pushing his party to the right in order to take advantage of the current populist wave in Europe.
It helped matters none that Haider recently sang Möllemann's praises, saying he would "suit us quite well" in efforts to build a Europe-wide right-wing bloc by 2004. (Previously, Möllemann had congratulated Haider for originally launching the new rightward trend.)
Even if Möllemann did reject Haider's gesture, the fact that the Austrian had taken notice shows the extent to which the German politician's recent actions have skewed international perceptions of the liberal Free Democrats.
Möllemann's recent accusation that Michael Friedman, the deputy chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany fueled anti-Semitism with his "intolerant, hateful style," prompted German political leaders and the Jewish community to accuse him of the worst form of discrimination in the book: blaming the victim.
Critics said his initial refusal to apologize only served to empower anti-Semites.
But his polemic was also out of character with the FDP's history of promoting social tolerance - a fact that is often forgotten these heated days leading up to the September 22 elections.
The Free Democrats have long been known for their free-market policies and social liberalism. In recent years, in addition to calling for tax cuts, the FDP has supported same-sex marriages and promoted immigration - two areas that don't generally fit the agenda of a party trying to foment right-wing populist sentiment.
In their efforts to increase the party's power, however, Westerwelle and Möllemann have been playing with fire.
Part of the problem lies in the party's "18 percent" campaign slogan - so named for the percentage of voters it would take for the FDP to assure itself a slot as the junior partner in Germany's next coalition government.
During parliamentary elections in 1994 and 1998, the party never gathered more than 6.9 percent of the overall vote, and few believe that the party is capable of gathering 18 percent of the vote without pulling disaffected voters both from the far-left and the far-right under its wings.
Flirting with youths and extremists
Peter Lösche, a professor of political science at the University of Göttingen, is the author of the book: "The FDP: The fight over its direction and doubts for the future." In his view, the FDP's strategy to gain 18 percent is based on maintaining its traditional base of free market-supporting, bourgeois professionals, gaining youth voters and trying to draw neo-populists - including dissatisfied members of the far-left Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to East Germany's communists, and the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD).
In order to gain younger voters, Westerwelle created the MTV-style Guidomobil motorhome that is traversing Germany; he brought in porno star Dolly Buster to campaign on the FDP's behalf; and he made an appearance on the popular "Big Brother" TV show last year.
Though Westerwelle's gestures to the "fun and event crowd" annoyed some core FDP voters, it was the neo-populist factor that blew up in his face.
"They failed to recognize that what they were going to gain on the right, they would lose in the center sections which have a high regard for human rights," Lösche told DW-WORLD. "The party's traditional voters get irritated when the FDP shifts to the right or tries to attract voters from that segment," he said.
"You need a Haider to Haiderize"
But despite its flirtation with right-wing politics, Lösche does not see this as the Haider-ization of the Free Democrats. To do that, he says, "you need a Haider." Despite willingness to gamble with the most-taboo subjects in post-WWII Europe, Möllemann is no Haider. Nor is Westerwelle.
Besides, Haider-ization would require a complete retooling of the Free Democrats' political philosophy. Lösche cites the liberals' tradition of laissez-faire economic policies and tolerance toward human rights and immigration as ideas that make it incompatible with neo-populist thinking.
Neo-populism, Lösche says, "instrumentalizes latent prejudices within society against foreigners, Jews or whomever. There have been examples of other European neo-liberal parties turning into neo-populists parties, but I see no danger of that happening with the FDP."
Nonetheless, in Lösche's assessment, the FDP's campaign strategy failed. "It looked rational at first, but they should have withdrawn within a few days (of the Jamal Karsli incident). They still could have mobilized potential voters from the right" without seriously damaging the FDP's political credentials, he says.
Now, it's too late. Even if the opposition Christian Democrats and Christian Social Union score big in the election, it is unlikely Westerwelle will be given the traditional junior-coalition partner cabinet post of foreign minister. And after his political stumbling, there will be little room for Möllemann in a coalition government.
"The CDU doesn't want someone like Möllemann in their cabinet," says Lösche, "you just can't predict what he's going to do."