The Free Democrats: Kingmakers in waiting? | Election | DW | 25.08.2009
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Election

The Free Democrats: Kingmakers in waiting?

Thrust into the position of Germany's opposition party by default, the liberal, pro-business Free Democrats have been slowly gaining ground on their much larger political rivals and could soon be in power once again.

Guido Westerwelle stands on a podium while delivering a speech

It's Westerwelle's third election as FDP leader

Although still dwarfed in pre-election polls, the liberal FDP has sprung back into political relevance as the preferred coalition partner of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), whose current term in office has been mired in an uneasy coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

The FDP touts itself as the party representing the interests of small and medium-size businesses and has often been posited as the "party of the wealthy." Throughout its history the party has swayed between espousing social liberalism and economic liberalism, though it has tended to endorse the latter as part of its modern political brand. Tied in to this is the FDP's opposition to strong government regulation.

Historically a niche party, the FDP has played a prominent role in German political life since the late 1940s, having been involved in nearly all coalition governments until the late 1990s. The party's popularity dropped off in recent elections, however, following poor showings in 2002 and 2005.

In 2001, under its new (and current) leader Guido Westerwelle, the FDP attempted to radically rebrand itself as a youthful, dynamic and "fun" party, and not just the representative of high-earning business professionals. The liberals set an ambitious target of 18 percent for the 2002 election, but garnered only a disappointing 7.4 percent after the German electorate deemed Westerwelle's "fun" antics during the election campaign to be a little disconcerting.

In the 2005 election, the liberals managed a 2.5 percent swing in their favor to finish with around 9.9 percent of the national vote, enough to give them the most seats of any of Germany's smaller political parties.

A new dawn?

Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and Guido Westerwelle sit in parliament

The FDP could seek to have Westerwelle made foreign minister

An unexpected surge in the FDP's popularity early this year saw their support rocket to around 18 percent, compared to their usual standing of around 10 percent. The figures have fermented the idea that if the FDP were to partner with the CDU, the two could command a solid majority to push through their mutual agenda of tax cuts and social policy.

The FDP's poll rating has slackened in recent months, but as of late August still stood at around 14 percent. Some analysts have suggested the rise this year reflects the dissatisfaction of right-wing voters with the compromise policies of the conservative CDU in their grand coalition with the SPD.

The liberals may also have picked up the support of disaffected former Social Democratic voters who have turned their backs on the SPD over a lackluster performance as partners in the current governing coalition.

Despite FDP chief Guido Westerwelle initially holding off on announcing his party's coalition plans for the upcoming election, insisting the liberals won't divulge a concrete agenda until a week before the Sept. 27 poll, a "black-yellow" partnership between the CDU and FDP is looking increasingly likely as the national vote approaches.

That said, having not been involved in running the country since the late 1990s, some analysts say Westerwelle could still be considering a last-ditch coalition with the SPD and the Greens should the election play out that way - a scenario the SPD's candidate for chancellor and current foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also refused to rule out.

Economic policy

Bundeswehr soldiers in Afghanistan

The FDP has called for a pullout plan for troops in Afghanistan

Should a CDU-FDP coalition materialize, however, the liberals will be in a position to wield a degree of influence in government, particularly with regard to the business and foreign policy portfolios. Westerwelle would be the frontrunner to assume the role of foreign minister and Rainer Bruederle, the former economics minister of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, is a contender for federal economics minister - though he would go up against the CDU incumbent, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.

Central to the party's plans are tax cuts for families and middle income earners worth up to 35 billion euros ($50.1 billion). The party also wants to simplify the tax system and shift to a three-band model with rates at 10 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent.

Keeping to its core values, the FDP would also seek to dish out greater support to small and medium-size businesses, which it wants to see pay only 10-25 percent business tax, compared with just under 30 percent now. Rules on protecting workers would be loosened, and the party wants the state to sell its stakes in banks it has invested in as part of its efforts to ease the impact of the global financial crisis.

Foreign policy

On Afghanistan, the FDP has taken the opposite tack to the ruling coalition. It has called for a pullout plan for Germany's 4,200-strong Bundeswehr force there. The CDU and SPD favor a continuation of the mission, which is part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

The Bundeswehr mission had fallen by the wayside in the election campaign until recently, when violence in Afghanistan surged in the run-up to presidential elections there, putting the issue back in the minds of many German voters. The FDP has sought to have the loudest voice on that matter.

Civil liberties

The party has also criticized what it sees as the limitation of civil liberties in the fight against terrorism. It wants to strengthen citizen's rights against state intrusion.

Author: Darren Mara
Editor: Deanne Corbett

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