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Germany's Free Democrats are fighting for survival

March 3, 2023

Following election defeats, the business-oriented Free Democrats (FDP) in the German government are seeking to sharpen their profile — by blocking the sales ban for combustion engine vehicles in the European Union.

olker Wissing (l) and Justice Miniser Marco Buschmann
The FDP's Transport Minister Volker Wissing (l) and Justice Miniser Marco Buschmann are digging in their heels on several projectsImage: Annegret Hilse/REUTERS

It is simply not working. The neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) suffered a crushing defeat in the latest of Germany's state elections on February 12 in Berlin: Only 4.6% — which means the business-oriented party will no longer be represented in the capital's parliament.

Ever since the FDP has governed at the federal level as part of a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the environmentalist Greens, formed in December 2021, the party has bled votes in state legislature elections five times in a row.

The FDP, as the smallest partner in the three-way coalition on the federal level, profits the least from its participation. "You could call it the dilemma of the FDP. From the beginning, the party has defined itself as the counterweight to the two left-wing parties. In doing so, they gave the impression that they are ultimately reluctant to be in the coalition. Their strategy has always been to make sure that prudence prevails and the left-wing Green and SPD parties do not get up to too much mischief," Albrecht von Lucke told DW.  He is a political scientist and editor of Blätter für Deutsche und Internationale Politik, a monthly magazine dealing with German and international politics.

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FDP: Staunchly pro-business, pro-car

Behind closed doors, leading FDP politicians and party loyalists repeatedly express dissatisfaction with the coalition government in Berlin. Too many compromises have been made, they say. Now, the party's Transport Minister Volker Wissing, known for his friendly attitude towards the automobile industry, has forced a postponement on an EU vote to ban combustion engines by 2035.

Many in the FDP are again yearning for their "natural" coalition partner, the conservative Union, comprising the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian counterpart the Christian Social Union (CSU), which the FDP has repeatedly formed governments with — also at the federal level — over the past seven decades.

Clearly, the FDP is faring the worst of all three partners in this coalition so far. At the latest general election in late September 2021, they gathered 11.5% of the vote. The coalition they formed with the SPD and Greens launched weeks later. It was themed "dare more progress." With that began the FDP's steady downward spiral in the polls. To the question "Which party would you vote for if a federal election were held this Sunday?" only 6% of respondents in the latest survey responded with "FDP."

From left to right: Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP), Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens), Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP), Economy Minister Robert Habeck (Greens)
After the 2021 election, FDP and Greens leaders were still friendsImage: Instagram/@volkerwissing/via Reuters

After the election defeat in Berlin, FDP chairman Christian Lindner made statements that clearly showed that the FDP could also engage in confrontation. "A policy against cars is obviously not in the people's interest," he said, in a clear dig at the Greens. The FDP also wants a modern immigration law, but no unregulated migration — another swipe at both coalition partners. But Lindner left the hard talk to his deputy Wolfgang Kubicki. "If we are to stop building roads, then there will be no more new power lines either," Kubicki threatened the Greens after the Berlin vote.

The political scientist von Lucke currently observes a "sort of two-pronged strategy" by the FDP: "Lindner says that he wants to bring the strengths of this coalition more to the fore. On the other hand, there is the position of Wolfgang Kubicki who said the 'time of appeasement' with the Greens and SPD was over and promised more opposition to his own government."

Christian Lindner
The FDP and its chairman Christian Lindner are fighting for political survivalImage: Chris Emil Janssen/IMAGO

FDP: Anti-tax-hikes, pro nuclear

Fundamental conflicts on issues of finance and taxation — both between the Greens and SPD on one hand, and the FDP on the other — continue to surface, especially now, as the next federal budget is being negotiated. There is a new spat about how the state's billions should be spent almost every day. One recurring issue is that the FDP wants to adhere to the so-called Schuldenbremse (translated literally as "debt brake") enshrined in the constitution, meaning very limited government borrowing, and categorically rules out raising taxes. The SPD and Greens would be prepared to implement tax increases, especially for the rich. In recent weeks, the conflict has escalated in the correspondence between Minister for Economic Affairs Robert Habeck (Greens) and Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP).

Lindner emphasized in his letter that, especially in view of the economic situation, "putting an additional burden on Germany as a business location is also economically wrong." Whereas Economy Minister Habeck proposed in his letter to discuss "how we improve revenue" and reduce or remove environmentally harmful subsidies. The content and tone of the correspondence suggest a deep rift between the ministers.

For von Lucke, the dispute shows that Lindner knows "the FDP must not lose its profile. And that is why he is relying to a certain extent on confrontation." The harsh tone has been criticized even within the FDP. "With some discussions, the accompanying 'music' is a little too loud for my liking," was how the party's deputy parliamentary group leader Carina Konrad put it to DW. The SPD, the largest party in the government, is openly annoyed about the coalition quarrel and stands closer to the Greens on the tax issue.

Wolfgang Kubicki
The FDP's Wolfgang Kubicki likes to take swipes at his center-left coalition partnersImage: Bastian Haumann/FUNKE Foto Services/IMAGO

FDP fears dropping out of parliament

Thoughts of leaving the coalition government, though, are taboo for the FDP. The trauma of 2013, when the party was ousted from the Bundestag after failing to reach the five percent share of votes needed in the parliamentary election — runs too deep. For the FDP, which significantly shaped politics in post-war Germany as a partner in many coalition governments with both the Union and SPD, it was a huge shock.

After this, Christian Lindner took the helm of the party. He rebuilt it from the ground up and led it back to a place in the government. Despite all the defeats and disagreements in this current term of office, despite the crisis in the FDP, it seems Lindner remains firmly in the saddle. The deputy parliamentary group leader Carina Konrad sums it up succinctly: "Yes, he's the right one," she told DW. That is also the summary of political scientist Albrecht von Lucke: "There is nobody who could and would want to conduct a coup against Lindner at this time because it would weaken the FDP even more."

This article was originally written in German.

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Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.