As German coalition starts to gel, a libertarian party plays kingmaker

Annegret Hilse/Reuters
Free Democratic Party leader Christian Lindner arrives for exploratory talks on a possible new government coalition in Berlin, Oct. 12, 2021.

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For Ann Cathrin Riedel, the appeal of Germany’s Free Democrats, who are now in talks to form the next coalition government, lies in their defense of civil liberties, including online privacy. She ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Berlin in last month’s election. But the party did well overall, polling fourth and picking up lots of support from first-time voters. 

Defining the party and its appeal can be tricky. It has libertarian ideas – lower taxes, legalization of cannabis – but supports a modest welfare state and market-driven policies to combat climate change. What may seem like contradictions, though, make perfect sense to its base. 

Why We Wrote This

Germany’s Free Democrats are tax-cutting libertarians who support social welfare programs and climate action. Who do they represent in Germany and how might they shape its politics?

Now it looks set to shape the policy of Germany’s first government in the post-Merkel era. Its leader is angling to run the finance ministry. Analysts say the Free Democrats could temper the spending ambition of the other partners in the coalition that lean left. 

And that practical approach to policymaking and strong sense of personal liberties can be seen in Ms. Riedel’s politics. 

“A lot of people say that we’re a boys’ club and we only have interest in economics. My goal was to show another face of my party as a young woman advocating for civil liberties and human rights,” she says. “I’m not a guy with a tie – liberalism is much broader than that.”

If you’ve overlooked the Free Democrats, the party that finished fourth in German elections last month, you’re probably not alone.

Its last spell in government ended in 2013 when it polled so poorly that it lost all its seats in Parliament. Now the FDP has emerged as a likely partner in Germany’s next ruling coalition, one of two small parties positioned to determine who will run Europe’s largest economy. On Monday, it agreed to enter formal talks to form a coalition led by the center-left Social Democrats. 

Yet pinning down what the FDP stands for, and how it might shape German politics after Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign, is complicated: It has libertarian ideas – lower taxes, legalization of cannabis – but supports a modest welfare state and market-driven policies to combat climate change. What may seem like contradictions, though, make perfect sense to its base, as long as party leaders stick to its brand of fiscal responsibility. And its resurgence highlights a strain in German society that tends to pragmatism over partisan signaling.

Why We Wrote This

Germany’s Free Democrats are tax-cutting libertarians who support social welfare programs and climate action. Who do they represent in Germany and how might they shape its politics?

“They care about rights and liberties yet also about maintaining [society’s] basic capitalistic nature perhaps with some regulation of capitalist excesses. But they’re very centrist,” says Eric Langenbacher, professor of government at Georgetown University, who compares the FDP’s politics to those of moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin and traditional Republicans like Sen. Mitt Romney.

For Ann Cathrin Riedel, a former FDP candidate in Berlin, the appeal of the party is in its defense of civil liberties in the face of mainstream political support for a sweeping national data retention law seven years ago. She felt that “I have to do something now.” So, she joined the party, which opposed the policy and argued for the preservation of user-data anonymity.

Eventually Ms. Riedel decided to run for Parliament, though she comes from a nonpolitical family and considers herself shy. Still, her practical approach to policymaking and strong sense of personal liberties is textbook FDP.

“A lot of people say that we’re a boys’ club and we only have interest in economics. My goal was to show another face of my party as a young woman advocating for civil liberties and human rights,” says Ms. Riedel, who failed to win a seat. “I’m not a guy with a tie – liberalism is much broader than that.”

Annegret Hilse/Reuters
The Free Democratic Party's deputy chairwoman, Nicola Beer (right), and federal manager, Bettina Stark-Watzinger, arrive at a meeting on a possible new government coalition, in Berlin, Oct. 12, 2021.

Since September’s election, in which it got 11.5% of votes cast, FDP has taken up its previous role as small-party kingmaker. The first-placed Social Democrats (SPD) had courted the FDP and third-placed Greens to form a so-called traffic light coalition, with the FDP coded as yellow. The three-way coalition would allow SPD leader Olaf Scholz to succeed Ms. Merkel as German chancellor. 

“The FDP has been one of those parties that’s always kind of punched above its weight because it was so crucial in forming that parliamentary majority and lending its support behind either a [Christian Democrat] or SPD chancellor,” says Dr. Langenbacher.

In coalition negotiations, the Free Democrats will be seeking support for critical parts of their policy platform and control of key ministries such as finance and economics; last week it proposed during talks that its leader Christian Lindner become Germany’s next finance minister.

Deficit hawks, climate activists

Hawkish on deficit spending and in favor of lowering taxes, the FDP has much in common with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). But its other priorities include climate change and digital transformation of Germany’s economy, along with progressive social policies such as same-sex marriage, legalization of cannabis, and lowering the voting age to 16. 

The FDP’s role in a coalition government, says Dr. Langenbacher, will be to ensure that its policies stay centrist, while blocking or diluting the ambitions of its left-leaning partners, the Greens and SPD. For example, while the FDP supports an energy transition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as do the Greens, the two parties disagree over how this should happen and at what cost to Germany’s economy.

This is a countervailing force that Germans will want, given their centrist policy preferences. “They like continuity and stability with maybe a dash of change thrown in once in a while,” says Dr. Langenbacher. “And I think German voters see the FDP as a bit of a balancing force to the more progressive policy that the Greens, and to a lesser extent, the SPD are pushing.”

Ludger Ramme is a former CDU member who became drawn to the FDP’s “personalized concept of liberalism.” The party switch was a personal transition that took decades; he was elected to the provincial council in a Berlin suburb as a CDU member, then quit to avoid being in coalition with the SPD, which had been a campaign promise.

Then, after a decade without party affiliation, he joined the Free Democrats. 

“The [FDP] voters are not a fixed group that you can identify easily. They are very diverse, found in all parts of the country, consisting of all kinds of people and all sorts of professions, all sorts of ethnic or religious backgrounds,” says Mr. Ramme, who works at an association that provides professional support to German managers.                                     

“What is uniting them is this concept of being free, having no boundaries, being able to assess topics always with a new spin.”

A share of first-time voters

Mr. Ramme is excited about the FDP’s future, since governing would give the party a chance to “show that they can do very good work and that they are producing added value for the citizens.”

The FDP seems in a good position to bring more voters into its tent. In September’s election, the FDP and the Greens together won 44% of first-time voters, earning about equal shares and giving both a shot at challenging larger national parties for power in the future. 

One of the FDP’s young supporters is 28-year-old law student Julian Laschek. He joined the FDP’s youth organization in 2017 and supports its emphasis on “self-determination” and on education to help Germans reach their full potential.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from, or if your parents are lawyers or work in handcrafts,” says Mr. Laschek, a Berliner. “Every young person should be able to make his own decisions on where they want to go.”

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