The man tipped to be Chancellor Merkel‘s kingmaker and partner in government is now known as the "coalition killer." His popularity rates have plummeted - but he has found new friends, which may be a long-term strategy.
How the mighty have fallen: One month ago, Free Democratic Party (FDP) leader Christian Lindner was a kingmaker — a key player in coalition talks to form a new government in Germany. Yet on Tuesday, magazine Der Spiegel named him their "loser of the day" for turning the FDP's successful resurgence in German national politics into a moment of crisis for the party.
Some have hailed Lindner's decision to step away from coalition talks — "it is better not to govern than to govern badly," as he put it — as a mark of his political savvy, accrued from four years in the wilderness after the pro-business FDP failed to make the 5 percent hurdle to enter the Bundestag in 2013's national elections.
Indeed, Lindner's actions could easily be read as him angling to enter the personality vacuum that will be left when Chancellor Angela Merkel finally decides to step down, as her Christian Democrats (CDU) appear unable to find an heir to replace her.
'The AfD are celebrating'
In that vein, many analysts from within Germany as well as internationally have pointed out that the 38-year-old Lindner is not, as he appeared to some before the election, aiming to be "approachable but tough" a la Justin Trudeau or Emmanuel Macron.
Rather, he appears to be channeling Austria's young, conservative Sebastian Kurz, who on Wednesday appeared mere days away from forming a nationalist government in Vienna.
The 31-year-old Kurz managed, in the course of just a few months, to rebrand one of Austria's oldest political parties in his own image — going so far as to rename the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) on the ballot as "the Sebastian Kurz list." Like Kurz and the ÖVP, the FDP's election campaign focused on slick, stylish and modern images of the party leader.
German journalist Ulrich Deppendorf called Lindner "mini-Kurz," adding that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) was "already celebrating and indirectly praising Lindner," for walking away from coalition talks.
Like Kurz, Lindner and the FDP are also hoping to siphon support away from the far-right by filing in the conservative gaps left by center-left and center-right governments. And in Lindner's case, perhaps taking away right-wing voters unhappy with how Merkel has led her center-right CDU towards the middle.
AfD like Lindner better than their own leader
Whether or not it's intentional, AfD supporters find Lindner appealing. According to a poll from public broadcaster ARD, after the FDP left coalition talks, 64 percent of AfD voters saw Lindner in a positive light — compared to just 25 percent before the September election. The nationalists even appear to prefer Lindner to their own co-leader, Alexander Gauland, who only has 58 percent approval.
Lindner was swiftly losing support among non-AfD voters, however, falling 17 percentage points to only 28 percent approval according to ARD. The FDP itself has sunk from its election high of 10.7 percent support to around 8 percent.
Tumbling poll numbers are now causing mutinous rumblings among the Free Democrats, who until recently firmly stood behind their leader.
"The FDP knows that without his turbo-campaigning, which was largely based on his own image, they would not be sitting in the Bundestag," Der Spiegel wrote. However, since the break up of coalition talks left Germany in political uncertainty, more FDP members are distancing themselves from Lindner.
Party Secretary Nicola Beer has publicly voiced her disappointment at walking away from talks, and Lindner's deputy Wolfgang Kubicki has insinuated that he would be willing to return to the coalition negotiating table.