German policy updates
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Eight weeks before Germany’s federal elections, Christian Lindner, leader of the liberal party, meets the perfect candidate to be the country’s next finance minister: himself.
Lindner claimed the job on a ARD television interview last weekend, as explained by a platform built on fiscal prudence, private, non-public investment, and the rejection of tax increases.
“I would be prepared to assume [the job]”Said the 42-year-old man. “I am an advocate for clarity and clear expectations.”
Some may see a trace of cheek. After all, her Free Democratic Party (FDP) lags far behind the other major parties: Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU / CSU, the left-wing Social Democrats, and the Greens. For months, the FDP was not part of anyone’s calculations: Germany’s first post-Merkel government was assumed to be a coalition between the CDU / CSU and the Greens, with the FDP on the sidelines.
But that view has started to change in recent months. Although the FDP is still small, its poll numbers have improved dramatically: it is now 13 percent, up from 5 to 7 percent a year ago.
For years, the FDP was caricatured as the party of the super-rich, of tax cuts and the free market. Bernd Riexinger, MP for the far-left Die Linke party, tweeted this week that Germany would be a “banana republic” if Lindner became finance minister. “Politics only for the rich, for lobbyists and big business,” he wrote.
It was the coronavirus pandemic that allowed the FDP to transcend that stereotype. As the blockade dragged on, the party positioned itself as Germany’s staunchest defender of civil liberties and the opponent of government reach. The message got home, especially to younger voters.
“The fundamental rights of the people were restricted in a way that has never been seen before in this country,” Marco Buschmann, head whip of the FDP, told the Financial Times. “In such a situation, they naturally turn to a party that takes civil liberties seriously.”
Most other parties, including the opposition Greens, backed the pandemic restrictions. The only other opponent was the far-right Alternative for Germany, but its tolerance of Covid deniers, anti-vaccines, and conspiracy theorists put off mainstream voters.
Unlike some in the AfD, the FDP never underestimated the severity of the crisis: simply that there were ways to combat the virus that did not trample on people’s constitutional rights.
“The FDP has been the great surprise of this pandemic,” said Andrea Römmele, professor of communication in politics at the Hertie School in Berlin. “They were successful in bringing the civil rights issue, which is what their brand is all about, to the center of the political debate.”
The FDP also benefited from its reputation as a party for modernization and digitization. The pandemic revealed deep-seated problems in Germany. Many people were surprised by the slow start of the vaccination campaign, the huge delays in the disbursement of financial aid, the heavy dependence of the health system on fax machines and the lack of online learning while schools were closed. Public frustration over these and other failures has only increased the appeal of liberals.
“The state has been shown to be too slow and inefficient,” said Florian Toncar, a senior FDP MP. “We urgently need to modernize our system of government, and the FDP has much more credibility on that issue than any other party.”
The pandemic made the FDP’s long-standing belief in a “more digitized and reduced state with less bureaucracy and simpler and faster decision-making processes” more relevant than ever, he added.
The recent advances of the FDP come after a few turbulent years. His public image suffered badly in 2017 when Lindner abruptly broke off talks about a “Jamaica” coalition government with Merkel and the Greens.
In 2020 he entered a crisis when Thomas Kemmerich was elected governor of the eastern state of Thuringia with the votes of the AfD. Kemmerich resigned three days later and the FDP reinforced its anti-AfD policy. Lindner, whose authority was questioned over the matter, reasserted control.
Lindner said in his television interview that he hoped Armin Laschet, the CDU leader, would be Germany’s next chancellor, and Laschet himself has made clear his preference for a coalition with the FDP, whom he sees as a natural ally. But it is unlikely that it will have a majority. A three-way tie with Jamaica is a more likely outcome.
However, all three are not natural bed partners. “The FDP is a one-issue party – it’s about tax cuts,” said a senior green MP. “Jamaica would be hell, a disaster.”
The FDP also opposes green plans for major public investments to halt climate change, a position that could prove controversial in light of this month’s catastrophic flooding in the west of the country that killed at least 170 people and have been blamed by global warming experts.
However, the FDP is convinced that it has wind in its sails. “The state has to stop invading our freedoms, we have to reactivate the economy and repair public finances,” Buschmann said. “And in all these things, it is the FDP that has the best offer for the voters.”