Bystanders were jeering or howling with derisive laughter as a line of Free Democrats, including former members of the Bundestag and their staff, were exiting Berlin’s parliamentary buildings carrying moving boxes. It was the fall of 2013. Germany’s liberal party, the FDP, had just failed for the first time in post-war history to clear the 5-percent hurdle to get into parliament. Following this defeat, the party’s old elite had resigned to make way for a new leader, Christian Lindner. Young, blond and photogenic, Mr. Lindner nonetheless knew what he was up against. It was, he said at the time, like taking charge of a “stinking corpse.”
But four years on, Mr. Linder and his Free Democrats appear to have risen from the dead. In the polls, they are at about 9 percent and thus likely to return to the Bundestag after the election on September 24. Once back in that chamber, they stand a good chance of retaking their traditional role in post-war German politics: that of kingmaker. For 49 of the Federal Republic’s 68 years, they have been junior partners in governing coalitions, helping either a Christian Democrat or a Social Democrat to be chancellor. This year, they could well help return Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat, to her fourth term in office.
Mr. Linder and his Free Democrats appear to have risen from the dead.
Liberalism in Germany has nothing to do with the contemporary American meaning of that term. Instead, Germany’s liberals trace their tradition back to the time between Napoleon’s defeat and the failed revolutions of 1848. Liberals and Nationalists – the two were related at the time – dreamed of uniting the German statelets under one democratic government based in Frankfurt. But their dreams died at the point of Prussian bayonets, and when Germany did unify in 1871, it was under an illiberal regime. After that collapsed, various liberal parties advocated again for a democratic Germany in the Weimar Republic. But they were fragmented and ground up between violent radicals on the left and right, then silenced under the Nazis.
As the political parties reformed after the Second World War, the liberals in the three Western zones of occupation banded together for the first time in 1948, under their new name, the Free Democrats. In part, they were inspired by classical liberals such as Adam Smith, with a belief in personal freedom, private property, limited government and free markets. But their philosophy was also in part homegrown, based on German Ordoliberalism. Like classical liberalism, it advocated free markets. In view of German history, however, it also supported a strong and tough state in cracking down on cartels and fighting inflation.
In Germany, this liberal philosophy has always been a minority view, and the FDP has remained a small party. Nonetheless, as kingmakers, the Free Democrats have played a disproportionate role in shaping post-war Germany. They gave the country its first president, Theodor Heuss, and its third, Walter Scheel; feisty economics ministers with aristocratic eyebrows such as Otto Graf Lambsdorff; and globe-trotting foreign ministers such as Hans-Dietrich Genscher, best known for his balcony speech in September 1989. Addressing thousands of East Germans who had fled to the West German embassy in Prague, Mr. Genscher began a sentence: “We have come to you to tell you that today, your departure…” He never finished it, because the crowd erupted into teary cheers that drowned out the rest of his speech. Soon after, the Berlin Wall cracked and fell.
Having leaned fashionably leftward during the 1970s, the Free Democrats in the 1990s, like Anglo-American conservatives and libertarians, became more fundamentalist about their market ideologies. They pushed relentlessly for simpler and lower taxes and restraints on the growth of the welfare state.
Their big mistake was to abandon this philosophical high ground and become increasingly associated in the minds of the public with clientelism. In 1994, a hapless party leader named Klaus Kinkel drafted the phrase “the party of higher earners” in a strategy document that was leaked to the media before being deleted. It stuck and turned into a cliché: the “party of lawyers, dentists and wealthy heirs.” The FDP got cozy with tycoons such as August Baron von Finck, rich as Croesus and one of the FDP’s biggest donors. During coalition negotiations in 2010 with Angela Merkel, party leader Guido Westerwelle negotiated a reduction in the value-added tax charged by hotels, thereby helping the baron’s business interests. Voters were appalled, ejecting the FDP from the Bundestag.
Mr. Lindner’s task has been to make a new start. Now aged 39, he is eloquent and confident, a former dot-com entrepreneur and Porsche fan. His main goal has been to erase the impression that the FDP hands out favors to rich people, and to regain credibility for espousing liberalism as such. He appears to be succeeding.
True to the party’s Ordoliberal roots, he opposes debt pooling and bailing out weak euro-zone countries, like Greece, and giving ever more control to Brussels. At the same time, he embraces European integration as such, in contrast to the populist Alternative for Germany. He dislikes Ms. Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, arguing that a liberal migration policy is only sustainable with clear rules. Germany must remain open, he thinks, but has to know who is coming in. He also demands law and order, calling for tighter border controls and more police, while opposing new surveillance laws that would threaten civil liberties.
Thus refreshed and refreshing, the FDP did well in several recent regional elections. The odds are good that come fall the Free Democrats, either alone or with the Greens, will once again become kingmakers – or rather queen makers, for it would still be Angela Merkel on the throne.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org