The World from Berlin: 'Merkel Now De Facto Head of Both CDU and FDP'

The FDP is on life support. Zoom
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The FDP is on life support.

The conservatives may be out of power in Lower Saxony, but the result was not a total debacle for Chancellor Angela Merkel. After 100,000 conservative voters opted to prop up the floundering Free Democrats, she now has control over two center-right parties, say commentators.

It was but a hint. On Jan. 3, Lower Saxony Governor David McAllister noted that he would understand if conservative voters were to forego choosing his party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in a crucial state vote and instead opted to vote for the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP).

The calculation was clear. Support for the FDP, McAllister's junior coalition partner, was well below the 5 percent minimum necessary for parliamentary representation. Should they fail the make it into parliament, McAllister would be out of a job.

McAllister later backtracked, saying he was confident the FDP would make it into parliament without help from CDU voters. But as it turns out, conservative voters weren't so sure. According to initial analysis of the state elections in Lower Saxony on Sunday, over 100,000 CDU voters opted to choose the FDP to ensure that the sclerotic party limped over the 5 percent hurdle.

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The result was a stunning reversal of FDP fortunes, as surprising as it is misleading. After months of polling below 5 percent in both Lower Saxony and nationwide, the FDP on Sunday achieved its best ever result in the state, gathering in 9.9 percent of the vote.

Alas, for McAllister's center-right government, it wasn't enough. Most of the extra votes received by the FDP came at the expense of his own party's total, leading to a disappointing 36 percent result for the CDU, 6.5 percentage points below the party's vote total in the last Lower Saxony election in 2008. The center-left pairing of the Social Democrats and Greens managed to eke out the slimmest of victories over the McAllister camp, securing just one seat in parliament more than its political rivals.

'Great Day for Liberals'

For the FDP, however, the outcome, artificial or not, is a much needed jolt in the arm. It allows the liberals, as the FDP, with its libertarian bent, is known in Germany, to look ahead to the general elections with some measure of optimism. Party leader Philipp Rösler, who is also Chancellor Angela Merkel's vice chancellor and economics minister, crowed that it was "a great day for liberals in the entire country."

Rösler also, apparently, saw it as an opportune moment to strengthen his hold on the party after months of a never-ending internal debate about his leadership of the FDP -- a stint at the top which has coincided with several catastrophic election results. On Monday, Rösler made the surprise announcement that he would be willing to step aside in favor of FDP parliamentary floor leader Rainer Brüderle, who had led the charge against Rösler as recently as last week. Brüderle, though, quickly backed down and Rösler will now remain in office.

Still, the primary question is what the FDP's result on Sunday might mean for the general election. According to initial analyses of voting patterns, some 80 percent of the votes received by the FDP came from voters who normally cast their ballots for the CDU. The party, in other words, has been bloated purely by strategic charity -- hardly a promising sign for Merkel, who needs a strong FDP result in September for her current governing coalition to continue.

German commentators on Monday examine the enigma that is the FDP.

Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"For the FDP, it is a borrowed victory, purely the result of tactical voting. ... As such, despite the strong showing, the party is not at all freer and more sovereign as the national elections approach. ... After Sunday's vote, in fact, it is more dependent on the Christian Democrats than ever before. The FDP is like a chimera. Their only role in national politics is that of securing a majority for Merkel."

"In general elections this fall, the FDP will likely once again be dependent on charity from the CDU and from Merkel, who will likely stage a half-hidden pro-FDP campaign similar (to that undertaken by McAllister)... . And that makes Merkel one of the covert victors of the Sunday election. The FDP's very existence is now dependent on her CDU."

Center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Despite the high regard in which Governor McAllister and his CDU are held in Lower Saxony, more potential CDU voters than ever before chose to cast their ballots for the FDP. The rather paradoxical result is that the FDP, despite months of a self-destructive leadership debate, received its greatest share of the Lower Saxony vote since 1947. Not even the FDP believes the success has anything to do with its platform or with its leadership. The party is nothing more than a tool necessary for leveraging the CDU into power."

The left-leaning Berlin daily Berliner Zeitung writes:

"One or two weeks ago, hardly anybody would have predicted that the FDP would leap the 5 percent hurdle into the Lower Saxony state parliament. And the party certainly didn't earn the respectable result it received on Sunday. It is neither a consequence of the party's work in Lower Saxony nor does it reflect on the party's nationwide reputation. And it certainly has nothing to do with the party's role in Chancellor Merkel's coalition. On the contrary, the party has spent recent months presenting a spectacle of almost unparalleled inferiority by publicly humiliating the leader they themselves chose."

"Perhaps the FDP's election result says nothing about the party itself. Maybe it says much more about the panic gripping the CDU -- the fear of ending up with an excellent election result but without a coalition partner."

"In short ... Sunday's vote says little about how the national election might turn out. The success of the FDP is contaminated and the CDU will be asking itself if vote charity makes any sense if it results in the conservatives emerging weakened from election night."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Angela Merkel can breathe again in Berlin without really being happy about what happened in Lower Saxony. Her party has lost double-digit percentages (in the last 10 years), about half of that coming relative to the state elections in 2008. But this decline is due in part to the CDU base lending their votes to the FDP. That's good news for Chancellor Merkel. The voter support for the FDP means that the pro-business party now knows who it can depend on in an emergency."

"This assistance also means that Merkel still has no reliable evidence as to whether her coalition partner will ultimately clear the 5 percent hurdle to make it into parliament on its own strength. In that sense, the state elections have brought no real clarity as to what course the FDP will take in the run-up to the federal elections. ... But it does make Merkel the de facto head of two parties, the CDU and the FDP."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The FDP's wondrous and triumphant return to the state parliament of Lower Saxony does not make it a convincing party. Nor does it make the FDP's coalition with the CDU a model for the future. Nor does it mean that the FDP's leader is any good. The FDP doesn't have Philipp Rösler to thank for its success in Hanover. It has Angela Merkel, and the fact that many CDU voters in Lower Saxony wanted to keep their government intact. That's why voters who would have otherwise chosen the CDU picked the FDP. That doesn't make these 'loan votes' suspect -- such activity is a part of democracy. But when the FDP wants to put those responsible for their recent electoral success at the top of their party ... then they should pick Merkel as FDP chairwoman and state Governor McAllister as vice-chairman. They brought the liberals into the state government."

-- Charles Hawley

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