The leader of the FDP, Christian Lindner, drinks a glass of water at a press conference in Berlin, March 2017.
Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

In an era of political upstarts, Germany’s biggest election drama features a more traditional player: Christian Lindner, a young career politician based in Düsseldorf familiar with the national stage, is attempting to return his Free Democratic Party (FDP) to its customary role of kingmaker in German politics. If he succeeds, it could be a game changer for Germany’s next government and provide a pathway out of the current comfortable but suffocating grand coalition between the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). Over the last several years in which the two major parties have been aligned, they have diluted their identities to meet in the middle. Although stable, the grand coalition has failed to inspire. 

Lindner’s chances of achieving that goal will become clearer after Sunday’s state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, in which the FDP is expected to win well over ten percent of the vote. Combined with its strong showing in the Schleswig-Holstein state elections, the party should make its way back into the federal parliament and could join forces with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU and, if needed, the Greens, to form a government.

Historically, the FDP, which adheres to economic and social liberalism, has been a pivotal player in Germany politics. It has worked as a junior partner to form governments with the CDU or the center-left SPD. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the statesman who navigated German reunification in 1989, unfortunately saw his beloved FDP diminish in stature in the last few  years of his life. The first sign came when the Greens usurped the FDP to establish a government with the SPD in 1998. The downfall was complete in 2013, when the party couldn’t muster the five percent threshold to enter parliament, a crushing blow for a party that had been active in German politics for over six decades. 

Today the German political landscape is highly fragmented. A record five parties (the Greens, the Alternative for Germany, the Christian Social Union, the Left, and the FDP) stand to enter the Bundestag along with the SPD and CDU. Among the gaggle of small parties, the FDP has the best chance of entering government, particularly if Merkel gets a fourth term in office and breaks her habit of forming a grand coalition.

Over the last several years in which the two major parties have been aligned, they have diluted their identities to meet in the middle.

Merkel might prefer governing with the SPD or even the Greens, and at times she gets more of their support than from her own party—for example, with regard to her stances on refugees and nuclear power. But her party’s natural partner is the FDP because of the Free Democrats’ dedication to market enterprise and civil liberties, values appreciated by many in her base. Indeed, whoever she might form a government with, many of her supporters will cast their second vote for the FDP. Germans receive two votes, one for a candidate in their district and one for a party which then allots seats in the parliament according to its list of candidates. Vote-splitting is common, and many conservatives will gladly give the FDP a helping hand with their second vote in order to fill the right-of-center void in the political spectrum left by Merkel’s steady shift toward the middle.

Understanding as much, the charismatic and politically astute Lindner has resuscitated the FDP by shedding the old guard and setting a new tone for the election campaign. Campaign ads in black and white showcase a hip and heroic Lindner. And Lindner has strategically reached out to rising stars such as Johannes Vogel and Katja Suding to help him in his quest. Gone are the days when FDP leadership seemed singularly focused on cutting taxes.

If Lindner succeeds, he will have to tread carefully. As a junior partner in Merkel’s second government, the FDP was overshadowed by the popular chancellor, who nearly achieved an absolute majority for her CDU and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, in the 2009 election. An inexperienced Philipp Rösler as vice chancellor was never on equal footing with Merkel, and scandals involving FDP cabinet ministers were fodder for the heute-show, Germany’s version of “The Daily Show.” The FDP was also tagged as a single-issue party, interested only in lowering taxes for its clientele of hoteliers and apothecaries.

Lindner became chairman of an FDP in exile. The party was rarely invited to participate in the constant parade of German political talk shows in the last few years, but the telegenic Lindner managed to get a seat at the table enough times to prevent voters from forgetting about him. He has said that he wants to shake things up and is challenging his countrymen to find courage in the face of German angst about maintaining their prosperity in an age of disruption.

Slick campaign spots have highlighted the need to minimize bureaucracy, which appeals to the upper echelon of society. Commercials on education, meanwhile, target Germans across the board. The FDP has also placed digitalization at the forefront of its platform, whereas other parties mention the topic as a side note. Moreover, in a time when the established parties are less ideologically distinguished, the FDP touts a clear message and brand with regard to freedom and civil liberties. This still resonates with Germans nearly three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

The election in North Rhine-Westphalia will be a test for Lindner. He should pass with flying colors since it is his home turf. If the FDP reaches double digits in Germany’s most populous state, it will portend well for the party’s return as a player on the federal level. Both the SPD and the CDU would like to disentangle themselves from the grand coalition. With this scenario in mind, Merkel will need the FDP and, if required, the Greens to reach a majority for a fourth term in office. Merkel will not be able to ignore the Young Turk from North Rhine-Westphalia, who is bringing his party back from the history books to be a contender once again in German politics.

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  • SUDHA DAVID-WILP is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow and Deputy Director of the Berlin office at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
  • More By Sudha David-Wilp