It is virtually certain that Angela Merkel will get a fourth term as German chancellor after national elections next month, but that simple fact masks an important shift in German politics that could push her toward more business-friendly policies and a change of course on Europe.
The right-of-center Free Democratic Party, under its young and charismatic chairman, Christian Lindner, is poised to make a comeback after its crushing loss in 2013 and reclaim its decades-long role as the junior coalition partner of choice.
And Lindner is not likely to risk the revival of the FDP’s popularity by compromising the policies he is campaigning on — including lower taxes and deregulation.
Like Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected president of France, Lindner is still in his 30s, charismatic, and passionate in a way that is lacking in most of Germany’s humdrum politicians. But he also has some ideas about the European Union that run contrary to those of Macron and to Merkel herself.
In a June interview with Politico Europe, Lindner rejected the newest bailout for Greece cobbled together by Germany and the European Commission, calling instead for forgiveness of some of Greece’s debt — on the condition that the country be kicked out of the euro EURUSD, +0.0586% , at least temporarily.
“Debt relief has to be combined with at least a temporary departure from the eurozone,” Lindner told Politico. “A separate currency for Greece carries risks, but also marks a strategic change with new opportunities for Athens.”
The International Monetary Fund has been urging debt relief for the beleaguered country, but then allowing Greece to remain in the euro would not be fair to countries like Portugal that have made painful sacrifices to stay within the rules governing the common currency, he said.
Lindner also gave short shrift to Macron’s calls for a common eurozone budget, finance minister and even Parliament, even though Merkel has diplomatically suggested she might talk about such things.
Macron’s notions of pooling debt and making budget transfers would turn the eurozone into a “Soviet Union system,” Lindner said.
Instead, the German politician favors a “differentiated Europe,” leaving members free to harmonize when they choose without imposing uniformity on all countries. This means that non-euro members should not be obligated to join the euro, for instance, at least not until the current problems are resolved.
Lindner also voiced opposition to the thinking of some in Brussels and Berlin that Britain should be punished for its break with the EU, making an example of it to discourage other members from going that route.
“That was the wrong strategy,” Lindner said. “It isn’t better for Europe and Germany if the British are weakened — quite the opposite. We have a stake in a strong and economically prosperous Great Britain.”
The FDP has been a partner in Germany’s governing coalitions for 49 of the 68 years of the postwar Federal Republic, as the country’s hybrid proportional voting system makes it difficult for any party to obtain an absolute majority. The FDP has often been in a position to provide the swing votes in Parliament for the center-right Christian Democrats or the center-left Social Democrats to form a majority.
Thus longtime FDP chair Hans-Dietrich Genscher was a famous kingmaker, serving as vice chancellor and foreign minister for 18 years under Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and then transferring his support to Christian Democratic leader Helmut Kohl, making him chancellor without giving the voters any say in it.
All this came to an end in the last national election in 2013, when the FDP failed to cross the 5% threshold for representation in Parliament for the first time in postwar history, forcing Merkel’s Christian Democrats to link up with the Social Democrats in a grand coalition.
But now the FDP is coming back, currently polling at 9%, well short of the nearly 15% of the vote it won in 2009 but enough to ensure its presence in Parliament and perhaps enough to form a government with the Christian Democrats — if that is Merkel’s choice or if the Social Democrats finally realize that governing with Merkel is a one-way street to oblivion.
The Social Democrats have been floundering since the initial bump in the polls in March when Martin Schulz, the longtime president of the European Parliament, entered the race as chancellor candidate, a fresh face in the tired party leadership.
The party has lost three state elections in a row, including the May vote in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, which the Social Democrats had ruled since 1966, except for a brief interlude from 2005 to 2010.
That reversal came at least in part due to Lindner’s fiery opposition in the state Parliament, where he was a member. The FDP won a record 12.6% of the state vote in May, compared with 8.6% in 2012. Combined with strong gains by the Christian Democrats, it was enough to give a majority to a coalition state government in what many saw as a harbinger for the national elections.
It was in fact one passionate speech in the state Parliament that Lindner gave in response to a Social Democratic heckler in 2015 that went viral on YouTube and heightened his national profile.
Lindner was speaking in favor of startups when another deputy mocked him for having a lot of experience in that, since Lindner had famously been involved in two startups that failed before devoting full time to politics.
Lindner turned the tables on the heckler, saying this was just the kind of attitude that kept young Germans from taking risks since they feared being stigmatized for the rest of their careers. “You can do that with me, I’m FDP chairman, I’m used to accusations,” Lindner said in the exchange. “But imagine the effect of your idiotic remark on some entrepreneurial young person.”
Its position in the middle of German politics often creates the impression, even in Germany, that the FDP is centrist, though its classically liberal emphasis on free enterprise and small government puts it to the right of the Christian Democrats on most issues. Lindner has restored this focus on European liberal positions (not to be confused with the American use of the word liberal to denote progressive).
If the current momentum holds, rising star Lindner could well find himself vice chancellor and foreign minister in Merkel’s fourth government. That would set a different tone for Berlin’s policies both at home and in foreign affairs.