On the Way Back into Government? the Free Democratic Party Gearing Up for the 2009 Elections

By Steltemeier, Rolf | German Politics and Society, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

On the Way Back into Government? the Free Democratic Party Gearing Up for the 2009 Elections


Steltemeier, Rolf, German Politics and Society


ABSTRACT

After the first Bundestag elections in 1949, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) established itself as kingmaker either of the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats. The entrance of the Green Party into the German Bundestag in 1983 brought about a significant change in the German political landscape, which challenged the German Liberals to redefine themselves. At present, it seems that the FDP is on its way back into the federal government after ten years of opposition, although "neoliberal" ideology is currently facing a severe international crisis. This constitutes a puzzling issue for political scientists, which is addressed in this article by analyzing the factors that can explain the German Liberal's latest success. Furthermore, the FDP's chances in comparison to the other two small parties (Left Party and Greens) are discussed. Finally, attention is focused on the characteristics of the FDP's election campaign and its coalition options for 2009 and beyond.

KEYWORDS

Free Democratic Party (FDP); liberalism; social cleavages; Bundestag elections; German party system; election campaigns; coalition strategy

Introduction

The year 2009 is another Superwahljahr (super election year) in Germany, with voters in numerous municipalities, in five federal states (Lander), at federal level (German Federal Parliament, Bundestag) as well as European level (European Parliament) being invited to cast their ballots. Despite the fact that the "neoliberal" ideology is experiencing a severe crisis internationally, the free-market (neo-) liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) might possibly be back on its way into the federal government. Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the FDP, openly is coveting the German Foreign Ministry as his new working place like many liberal politicians did before. The long crisis of the German Liberals, which slowly emerged with the entrance of the Green Party into the German Bundestag in 1983, is apparently over, in spite of the most severe global economic crisis since 1929. The recent Land election results in Bavaria and Hesse reflect the new strength of the Liberals, which entered the government coalition in both Lander with 8.0 percent in Bavaria (+ 5.4 percent) and 16.2 percent in Hesse (+ 6.8 percent). This also changed power constellations in the Bundesrat and has ended the grand coalition's ability to govern without considering the positions of the Free Democrats, who now influence twenty-nine out of sixty-nine votes in the second chamber. Hence, there are clear signs that the German Liberals might return to government in 2009.

The FDP, however, had felt very close to power in the Bundestag elections in 2002, and even more so in 2005. But, in both cases the election results only led to parliamentary, not to ministerial seats. In 2002, internal problems with Vice Chairman Jurgen Molleman and a rather poorly received election campaign were seen as the main causes of the election result (7.2 percent). In 2005, the FDP gained 9.8 percent and still was condemned to another four years in opposition. Since then, the party has steadily gained ground within the electorate. Recently, the German party system has tended towards a lower level of segmentation and higher polarization, appearing to be more fragmented but less asymmetric. The currently governing grand coalition strengthens the smaller right and left wing parties, because the electorate is not satisfied with the consensual approach of the diffuse "middle." If the Free Democrats are able to withstand the political repercussions of the economic recession and to emphasise their liberal stance on civil rights, they may well be the main beneficiaries of this dissatisfaction. With opinion polls currently showing support for the Liberals of up to 18 percent, (1) it can be assumed that in 2009 they are finally on the way back into government-even though the time when the Free Democratic Party was the kingmaker in the German party system has passed.

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