Tactical Takeover: Germany’s Liberals Are Ready to Run the Country

Tactical Takeover: Germany’s Liberals Are Ready to Run the Country

For the first time in modern German history, there may be a left-wing government and that includes ex-communists.

In Germany, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) is traditionally the party that is most closely aligned with the market economy. They call themselves “the liberals,” although it is important to remember that “liberal” has quite a different meaning in Germany than it does in the United States, where the term is often associated with left-wing politics. Make no mistake, the FDP is not left-wing. “Liberal” in Germany means pro-market and pro-civil rights.

At present, the FDP is still an opposition party. But, with elections to the German Bundestag coming up on September 26, the FDP could soon play an important role in forming a government. The FDP under its leader Christian Lindner is currently riding higher in the polls than ever before, and a double-digit result seems certain. The party is currently being courted by several parties that would need its support to form a coalition government:

First, the CDU, Angela Merkel’s current governing party, which is doing worse in the polls than at any point in the history of the Federal Republic, would like to form a coalition with the FDP. On a personal level, the heads of the CDU (Armin Laschet) and the FDP (Christian Lindner) understand and get along with each other. They have even governed together in Germany’s largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia. However, even combined, the two are not likely to secure enough votes for a majority. They will need a third partner, and it will have to be a left-wing party at that: either the Social Democrats (SPD) or The Greens.

Second, Armin Laschet’s direct opponent for the chancellorship, the SPD’s Olaf Scholz (the finance minister in the current coalition government), would also like to form a coalition with the FDP. But this would also require a third party, the Greens, because the FDP and SPD together will not have enough votes.

As a result, Lindner finds himself courted by the CDU, SPD, and Greens, and yet he could soon find himself in a dangerous predicament:

As all the current polls would have it, a coalition of the SPD, Greens and the FDP is a mathematical possibility. What’s more, Olaf Scholz is said to favor such a coalition. Christian Lindner, on the other hand, has been saying for months that he doesn’t have the imagination for such an alliance, although he does not want to rule it out either. At the same time, Lindner has repeatedly asserted that under no circumstances will he join a coalition government that wants tax increases. On this, Lindner couldn’t have been clearer. If he were to go back on his word and join a government that increases taxes, then he would be breaking his main election promise. It would be a repeat of what happened in 2009, when the FDP campaigned on tax cuts and secured a sensational share of the vote, but then reneged on its election promise. The party paid the price four years later, in 2013, when the FDP ended the election with its worst-ever result and was kicked out of the German parliament, the Bundestag. This traumatic experience still haunts the FDP.

The Greens and the SPD are enthusiastically calling for the very same tax increases that the FDP has categorically ruled out. Demands for the “rich” to pay more taxes are playing a central role in the current election, especially in the SPD’s campaign. Both the SPD and the Greens have promised to increase income tax and introduce a wealth tax for the first time since 1997. The Greens even want to introduce a one-off wealth levy on top of the wealth tax. In a coalition of SPD, Greens, and FDP, either the SPD and Greens or the FDP would have to break a key election campaign promise. This suggests that talks to form such a coalition could be destined to fail. The tax issue would be the main obstacle, but it is by no means the only stumbling block. The SPD, for example, is also calling for a rent freeze, which the FDP unequivocally rejects. Ideas on migration and European policy also diverge diametrically between the FDP on the one hand and the Greens and SPD on the other.

But what would happen if coalition talks between the SPD, Greens, and FDP collapsed and Germany ended up with a coalition of the SPD, the Greens, and Germany’s leading far-left party, Die Linke—an eventuality that neither the SPD nor the Greens have explicitly ruled out? Lindner would then be left holding the bag. FDP supporters, especially from the business community, would be enraged. The media would say that the FDP had “chickened out” for the second time (after breaking off coalition talks with the CDU and the Greens four years ago). People would conclude that Lindner was apparently fundamentally unwilling to govern. Back in 2017, Lindner declared that “It is better not to govern than to govern badly.”

If coalition talks with the SPD and the Greens were to fail after September 26, then Christian Lindner would be blamed for the fact that for the first time in modern German history there would be a left-wing government and it would include the ex-communists.

Without a doubt, such accusations would be both unfair and inaccurate, since the responsibility would lie solely with the SPD and the Greens. But the media would blame the FDP and claim the party had the ability to prevent such an outcome if only it had formed a coalition with the SPD and the Greens. For years to come, every time the FDP criticized the left-wing government, it would have to put up with snide remarks that this was the government it had chosen by rejecting the offer of an alliance with the SPD and the Greens.

Lindner is still hoping for an alliance with the CDU and the Greens or an alliance with the CDU and the SPD. But what if, after the election, a left-wing government comprising the SPD, the Greens, and Die Linke did win a majority of seats in the Bundestag? Then the FDP would face the dilemma described above. Regardless of how Lindner responds, it could once again put the FDP in an extremely difficult position and would lead to a massive loss of confidence. Either the FDP becomes the fig leaf for a left-wing alliance of the SPD and the Greens and breaks its main election promise by agreeing to tax increases and rent regulation. Or it gets the blame for the SPD and the Greens forming a left-wing government with the Die Linke.

It can’t be easy being Christian Lindner right now. On election night, he will more than likely deliver the kind of victory for the FDP that hardly anyone would ever have thought possible for the second time in a row. At the same time, however, if the SPD, the Greens, and Die Linke end the night with a mathematical majority, as currently looks highly probable, the FDP will find itself facing a real dilemma—an electoral Catch-22.

Rainer Zitelmann is the author of The Power of Capitalism and The Rich in Public Opinion.

Image: Reuters.