Christian Lindner

Holding the Whip Hand

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Guess what I'm going to do next? Picture source: Reuters

Among the winners and losers in Germany’s election on Sunday, perhaps the biggest winner of all is Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the man holding the whip hand in the formation of a new German government.

The Social Democrats, after their worst result in postwar history, have rejected a renewal of the grand coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Mr. Lindner thus becomes the key to the formation of a new coalition, in tandem with the Greens, who received just under 9 percent of the vote. If the three parties find enough common ground to form a government, the FDP leader could be Germany’s next finance or foreign minister, though latest reports are he may content himself with being parliamentary leader instead.

Virtually unknown outside Germany, the charismatic 38-year-old has been a rising political star inside the country for years. Not only has he led his party back out of the political wilderness after their disastrous result in 2013 federal elections, when they fell below the 5 percent hurdle for parliamentary representation for the first time in postwar history, but with nearly 11 percent of the final vote this year, he has even topped the expectations of Germany’s normally very accurate pollsters.

Mr. Lindner has unsettled financial markets by favoring a stricter course with straying euro members.

It was a stunning comeback, both from the 2013 result and the nadir of the 2014 European Parliament election of 3.5 percent. Most pollsters, even until the last minute, had the FDP hovering around 9 percent this time around. Those same pollsters also underestimated support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which won close to 13 percent of the vote to enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time. Their votes came at the expense of the mainstream centrist parties, which together lost 14 percentage points on their 2013 results.

None of the other parties, however, will let the AfD anywhere near the government. The anti-immigrant, euroskeptic party will be noisy in opposition, but their support is likely to erode quickly once they are exposed to the light of day in parliament. So even though AfD came in third place, it is really Mr. Lindner’s FDP that emerged with the strongest leverage.

While Ms. Merkel won in the sense that she remains at the head of the largest party and will remain chancellor, she lost in almost every other way – percentage of voter support, number of seats in parliament, and the unshakeable certainty that she is on the right track – after two-thirds of those who went to the polls voted against her.

Mr. Lindner has unsettled financial markets by favoring a stricter course with straying euro members, even suggesting that countries like Greece should at least temporarily exit the joint currency if they cannot keep to the rules. On the other hand, he has urged more accommodation regarding Britain’s exit from the European Union, arguing that Germany and the EU can only benefit from a strong and prosperous Britain. He has also suggested more flexibility in relations with Russia, accepting its annexation of Crimea as a fait accompli and moving on.

These are radical stances for someone who will hold tremendous sway in Germany’s next government. They are not only more sharply defined than those of Ms. Merkel’s outgoing government, but run contrary in many respects to those of Europe’s other political wunderkind, French President Emmanuel Macron. In the hours following the election results, Mr. Lindner reiterated he would draw a red line against Mr. Macron’s proposal for a single euro zone budget.

The posturing for coalition talks has already begun, and both Mr. Lindner and his deputy, Wolfgang Kubicki, have set the threshold high, claiming there are certain issues they won’t give ground on. Mr. Lindner has even chastised the Social Democrats’ leader Martin Schulz for refusing to even consider a coalition, as if he would prefer a role in opposition in parliament.

Having honed his debating skills in the state parliament in North Rhine-Westphalia, Mr. Lindner, who has a YouTube following for his spirited interchanges in the parliament, evidently intends to carry that role to the national level. He had himself designated parliamentary leader for his party on Monday, and will keep that post along with the party leadership.

“One waits until times change, the other seizes the moment and acts.”

Christian Lindner, FDP leader, citing Dante at age 18

The FDP has a long tradition as kingmaker in Germany’s coalition governments. Former party leader Hans-Dietrich Genscher remained in government for 18 years even as his unilateral decision to switch his support ousted one chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, and replaced him with another, Helmut Kohl. The coalition that Ms. Merkel must now forge is more complex, because it must include the Greens. However, the current leaders of the environmentalist party, Simone Peter and Cem Özdemir, have sought to moderate the more extreme factions of the party and are likely to be more pliable.

Mr. Lindner was roundly mocked during the campaign for ads that featured him like a Calvin Klein model, photographed in black and white with a fashionable stubble. But beyond his youth and passion, it could well be Mr. Lindner’s future-oriented and business-friendly policies that attracted voters. He is pushing for digitization in Germany, which lags other top industrial countries in this regard, and wants to ease regulations that hamper startups, as well as lower taxes.

The FDP leader was himself involved in a couple of failed startups as a youth. When a Social Democratic lawmaker heckled him about that in a state parliament debate in North Rhine-Westphalia two years ago, Mr. Lindner turned the tables on him in what would become a viral hit on YouTube video. He chastised the lawmaker for an attitude that kept young Germans from taking risks for fear of being stigmatized for life. “You can do that with me; I’m FDP chairman, I’m used to accusations,” he said in the debate. “But imagine the effect of your idiotic remark on some entrepreneurial young person.”

Just days before the election, Stern magazine unearthed a video of an 18-year-old Mr. Lindner brimming with self-confidence as he launched an early startup while still in high school. That video went viral, too, as it showed Mr. Lindner quoting Dante, “One waits until times change, the other seizes the moment and acts.” For good measure, he threw in, “Problems are only opportunities with thorns on them” (an aphorism from the 19th-century self-taught Scottish geologist Hugh Miller). That 1997 interview came two years after the teenager joined the FDP and three years before the 21-year-old was elected the youngest ever member of the state parliament.

Mr. Lindner will be facing some thorny opportunities in coalition negotiations, but his tough talk may not be all posturing. He has learned a lesson from the last time the FDP entered into a coalition with Ms. Merkel, when the party’s nearly 15 percent in 2009 enabled them to form a coalition alone with the Christian Democrats. Under Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the FDP was unable to fulfill its campaign pledge of lowering taxes and voters deserted them in the 2013 debacle. This time, the FDP has signaled it wants the finance ministry for itself. Mr. Lindner is not likely to make that mistake again.

Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global based in Washington, DC. To contact the author: D.Delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com

This story was updated Thursday to reflect Mr. Lindner’s possible shift to becoming parliamentary leader.

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