It was 14 minutes before midnight on Sunday, November 19, when Christian Lindner, well-groomed with his trademark designer stubble, stepped into the cool, damp German night outside the venue where he had been holed up with Chancellor Angela Merkel and other politicians for hours, days and weeks. He spoke into the tangle of microphones for only four minutes. But in that time, he threw a country that has since 1949 taken pride in its political stability into unprecedented turmoil. The four parties which Ms. Merkel had been trying to nudge into a coalition had developed “no common basis of trust” and “no shared idea” about governing, Mr. Lindner lamented. And off he flounced into the night, leaving Germany and Europe in limbo.
How dare he? That is the reaction of about 53 percent of Germans, according to a snap survey this week. Many of them believe the narrative that Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, their Bavarian sister party CSU, and the environmentalist Greens have since been propagating: That the talks were approaching a breakthrough, and that Mr. Lindner and his Free Democrats (FDP) willfully torpedoed them as part of egoistic grandstanding.
But many others, including many supporters of the Free Democrats, are impressed with Mr. Lindner’s withdrawal on principle. What good would it have done to enter formal talks among four parties who don’t trust one another, and then a governing coalition that cannot agree on fundamentals and could collapse at the first international and unforeseen crisis? Better that Mr. Lindner hews closely to his party’s classically-liberal values.
He appears in well-tailored suits, with a tan that is oddly persistent throughout the German winter.
Gambler or stalwart, which is it? Mr. Lindner certainly embodies the good and the bad stereotypes that many Germans have about the Free Democrats. He was already donning a blazer and dabbling in business in high school, and even made a video about it. During the internet bubble he started a dotcom business – less common in Germany than it might have been in the US – which later went bust.
But Mr. Lindner and his Free Democrats, unlike many other Germans, lionize that sort of entrepreneurial risk-taking. When Mr. Lindner was in the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia, a lefty politician tried to cast aspersions on his business “failure”. Mr. Lindner spontaneously responded with a counterattack that made him a YouTube hit. Cheering success, lauding risk, celebrating individual initiative and tolerating failure is what he and his Free Democrats are all about.
Mr. Lindner’s style reinforces that message. He appears in well-tailored suits, with a tan that is oddly persistent throughout the German winter. He drives thousands of kilometers a year in his vintage Porsche, not to get anywhere but for the joy of it. And he never shrinks from rhetorical confrontation. During the campaign this summer, he was on stage at a university when leftist protesters tried to shout him down. Poised, he unclipped his own microphone and lent it to one of the protesters, then methodically proceeded to deconstruct his propaganda to thunderous applause.
It is this sort of chutzpah that made Mr. Lindner the ideal leader to bring the Free Democrats out of their nadir, the trauma from which they still suffer. It was the humiliation of being ejected – for the first and only time since 1949 – from the Bundestag in 2013. Under its previous leaders, the party was seen to have drifted from its principles in order to cozy up with Angela Merkel as her junior partners in government. Rather than stand up for individual freedoms against the Leviathan, the Free Democrats appeared to care only about holding cabinet positions and doling out favors to supporters. When they left the Bundestag building, ordinary Germans were howling and cheering in disdain.
But Mr. Lindner gave the party new hope. He has brought fresh young faces and a new look, with a bright magenta-on-yellow aesthetic that jars the old but draws the young. A fiend of selfies and social media, he built a poster campaign around himself, usually pictured with an open shirt lost in heroic thought. He has also reaffirmed old liberal principles while proclaiming new and modern goals, above all the acceleration of German society into the internet age and the fourth industrial revolution.
This was the frame of mind in which he entered these coalition negotiations: that of a party resurrected, of a new mandate based on a promise never to sell out again. During the talks, he insisted that his fellow Free Democrats only address the hostess as Frau Dr. Merkel, not as Frau Bundeskanzlerin (Ms. Chancellor), to show that they were politicians on equal footing. When she waxed vague, as she tends to do, he put her on the spot. “How will your actions in Brussels change in concrete terms?”, he demanded at one point.
The negotiators from the other parties are now doing their best to spin that as insolence. “The closer we got to an agreement, the more nervous Christian Lindner got,” the Greens’ parliamentary leader, Anton Hofreiter, told Handelsblatt’s sister publication Tagesspiegel. The implication: Mr. Lindner used the talks as his own stage, planning all along to make them fail.
Only time will tell whether Germany is now bound for new elections, and whether voters will punish the Free Democrats for crashing the coalition talks. For Mr. Lindner that uncertainty may be acceptable. Aged only 38, he is clearly impressed by the boldness and success of other young guns, such as France’s Emmanuel Macron or Austria’s Sebastian Kurz. His move was risky. But for Mr. Lindner, perhaps more than for any other German politician today, risk is not only part of life – it is the fun part.
Barbara Woolsey is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.