Christian Lindner's choice of words was telling when he announced in the wee hours of Monday morning that talks to form a Jamaica coalition with Angela Merkel's conservatives and the Green Party were over. They were the same words that are now plastered at the top of the FDP's website. "It's better not to govern than to govern wrongly."
Lindner was referring to the party's comeback from the political wilderness. In 2013, after four years of being a junior party in a Merkel-led coalition, the FDP failed to clear the 5 percent hurdle needed for parliamentary representation. For the first time in 64 years, the party was out of the Bundestag.
That humiliation was blamed on public perceptions that the Free Democrats were political opportunists and lapdogs of Merkel's conservatives — with no political principles of their own. When he took over as party chairman four years ago, Lindner vowed to erase that humiliation.
The decision to pull the plug on the coalition is in a sense the culmination of a process that began on September 22, 2013. It's also very much a decision that reflects the FDP chairman's personal political outlook.
A youthful leader combatting an old trauma
To understand how deeply the 2013 election debacle affected Lindner, who has been a member of the party since the age of 18, you need only look at a book he's recently published. Its title is, tellingly, "Shadow Years." In it he describes the FDP's night of horror.
"I remember the pictures on TV of how the SPD and Greens erupted into cheers at their election parties when it was announced that the FDP was out of parliament,” Lindner wrote. "Whenever I had doubts about our efforts to come back, I thought of those images. I was determined that they wouldn't be the last ones people would remember."
After being part of a Merkel-led coalition from 2009 to 2013, the crushing election defeat created a vacuum at the top of the FDP. The entire party leadership resigned, opening the way for Lindner. At only 34 years old, he became the FDP's youngest-ever party chairman.
Out with the old and in with the new — that was the FDP's new motto, as they set about trying to reestablish their electoral base. And Lindner succeeded in leading the FDP out of the political wilderness.
The Free Democrats' strategy in this year's national election was heavily focused on the party's youthful, camera-friendly front man. The vast majority of FDP election advertisements featured the chairman: Linder fiddling with his mobile phone, Lindner rolling up his sleeves, Lindner promising improvements in digitalization and education, Lindner staring into the camera with trendy three-day stubble.
This approach paid off: The Free Democrats captured 10.7 percent of the vote on September 24, 2017. The FDP were back in parliament. But what next?
The abiding shadow
When exploratory talks about the Jamaica coalition began, the conventional wisdom was that parties involved had no choice but to reach an agreement. Significantly, Lindner was the one to first broach the possibility that the talks could fail. Most pundits considered it a tactical maneuver. It's now clear that they were wrong.
In his book, he recounts getting messages from former FDP voters in 2013 who said that they abandoned the party because it had abandoned its traditional small-government principles. That, combined with the schadenfreude of the other parties, left a lasting impression.
"The messages I received almost never expressed any regret or sympathy," Lindner wrote. "The FDP did not just experience a defeat…It was ridiculed, showered with scorn and insults, laughed at."
On the evening of September 24, as Lindner began composing his post-election remarks, his celebrations were tempered by some bad memories. The success of 2009, he reminded himself, had been followed by the catastrophe of 2013.
"My notes read: 'Renewal of FDP incomplete, intermediary goal achieved, new members welcome,'" he wrote. "The shadow of these years will remain."
Willing to risk uncertainty
One conclusion Lindner has drawn from the past is that it's better to take controversial positions than to go along with consensus for the sake of harmony. During the campaign, for instance, Lindner drew criticism for suggesting that Russia's occupation of the Crimea was a reality Germany would have to accept for the time being – a violation of the orthodox view in German foreign policy.
Now Lindner is bucking the prevalent view that a fresh election needs to be avoided at all costs to prevent the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party from becoming more popular. Lindner may get along better with the Greens personally than his predecessors, but he views both them and Merkel's conservatives as adversaries.
In his book, he writes of "the conservative-Social Democratic-Green mainstream" and promises "We will occupy the political middle that the CDU, SPD and Greens have left unoccupied."
Lindner clearly thinks that the risks for the FDP of the uncertainty created by scuppering the Jamaica coalition are less than those of being seen to compromise too much in the interests of creating a new government. The question now is: what will be the consequences of the FDP's decision?
It's difficult to see the Free Democrats dramatically improving upon their September results, if Germans have to go to the polls again. Indeed, it's entirely possible that voters would punish Lindner and the FDP for refusing to do their part to form a coalition government the majority indicated it wanted after the election.
If that scenario materializes, Lindner's attempts to avoid the mistakes of the past could prove to be a pitfall all its own.