Free Democrats

A Hopeful Kingmaker

Christian Lindner
He's the face of the FDP and in your face when it comes to slashing taxes. Source: Tobias Hase/DPA

Germany’s pro-business Free Democrats, in the political wilderness since voters evicted them from parliament in 2013, presented their election campaign program and poster on Monday, featuring its photogenic leader Christian Lindner and the slogan “Let’s Think New.”

“The FDP is reporting back for duty as a party of the center, for the center,” Mr. Lindner told reporters. The party, he said, had no intention of appealing to voters on the political fringes of the left and right and was inspired by the elections in the Netherlands and France this year won by parties with the courage to make changes. “We’re being carried by an optimism to shape things,” he said.

The tax-cutting FDP, dubbed the party of lawyers and dentists by its detractors because of its past focus on the interests of well-heeled voters, is Chancellor Angela Merkel’s preferred partner. Opinion polls show it has a real chance of resuming its traditional role as kingmaker in German politics and forming a center-right coalition with her after the federal election on September 24. A three-way coalition with the Greens is also possible.

“The FDP is reporting back for duty as a party of the center for the center”

Christian Lindner, FDP leader

The Free Democrats are classically liberal in their commitments to open markets, a small state and personal freedom. They propose slashing taxes by €30 billion ($34 billion), or nearly twice as much as Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union bloc, and investing in digitization, high-speed broadband and technical education.

Like the CDU-CSU, the FDP has called for a points-based immigration system for skilled workers, in response to Germany’s refugee crisis in 2015-2016. “We have a window of opportunity that we should use as traditional immigration countries like the US and the UK have become less attractive,” Mr. Lindner said.

The former businessman and amateur racing car driver has led the FDP to something of a comeback. This year, it entered the regional governments of two states, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia, as junior partner to the conservatives, giving it strong momentum for September.

The party’s election poster features a black-and-white photo of the 38-year-old leader in a tie-less, open-necked white shirt and black jacket. It was taken by the well-known photographer Olaf Heine and appears next to the slogan “Christian Lindner: Sometimes a whole country has to jump from the 10-meter board.”

Flüchtlingsprojekt
The FDP sees opportunities for migrants with skills. Source: DPA

The FDP ran a similar campaign in North Rhine-Westphalia in May. “Focusing on FDP leader Lindner makes sense in the campaign,” said Kristina Weissenbach, an election analyst at the NRW School of Governance in Duisburg, calling him a good speaker who comes across as authentic. “That’s going to be important in this election. Studies show that the more you’re in contact with a person, the more you create closeness and trust. That helps to mobilize voters.”

Ms. Weissenbach said the choice of black and white wasn’t new for a campaign but was unusual enough to be eye-catching. The latest polls put support for the FDP at 8 or 9 percent, and membership is rising, with 6,000 people joining the party so far this year, raising the total to 58,000.

Ms. Weissenbach warned that the FDP should refrain from focusing exclusively on Mr. Lindner in the campaign because that could create the impression it has no one else to offer. “That could put off highly educated and critical potential FDP voters,” she said. “To reach those voters it would make sense to present additional people across the country.”

The conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats are also concentrating their campaigns on their respective candidates, Ms. Merkel and Martin Schulz. But as they’ve been in government together for the last four years, voters know most of their possible future cabinet ministers. The FDP’s top ranks, by contrast, aren’t as widely known.

Mr. Lindner played down the party’s election chances on Monday. He said a repeat of the right-left alliance, the so-called grand coalition between conservatives and SPD that has ruled Germany since 2013, was the most likely outcome.

He said the FDP’s party program was closer to that of the conservatives than the SPD. But he reiterated that the FDP would not commit itself to any particular partner ahead of the election.

The party has set aside some €5 million for the campaign and has initially ordered more than 6,000 large placards.

Dana Heide covers politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: heide@handelsblatt.com and blau@handelsblatt.com

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