One could hardly imagine a worse result for the Free Democrats (FDP) than the one the business-friendly party received in Bavarian state elections on Sunday. A paltry 3.3 percent of the vote was all they could muster -- well below the five percent hurdle necessary for representation in the state's parliament. And a terrible omen for the national elections set to take place this coming Sunday.
Or is it? The FDP, once the powerful kingmakers on the national political stage in Germany, is now hoping that its pathetic showing in Bavaria could lead to a larger than expected share of the votes nationwide -- from conservatives who "loan" their votes to the FDP to ensure a continuation of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition. Indeed, top party members have already launched a campaign to convince voters of the wisdom of doing so.
"This coalition of conservatives and FDP, you can vote for it," said FDP General Secretary Patrick Döring on Monday. He said it could be "very clever" of voters to support Merkel's current coalition "by supporting a strong conservative candidate locally and then casting their second vote for the FDP."
"We will explain to people that it makes sense to split their votes if they want to see a continuation of the center-right coalition," said leading FDP member Wolfgang Kubicki in comments to the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper.
Even before the election in Bavaria, it had appeared likely that the FDP would need outside help to attract enough votes for representation in the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament. But Sunday's vote brought that suspicion into focus. The Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, received 47.7 percent of the vote behind its powerful leader Horst Seehofer. It was enough for an absolute majority, easily outpacing the Social Democrats (20.6 percent), the Free Voters (9.0 percent) and the Greens (8.6 percent). Five years ago, the FDP received 8.0 percent in Bavaria, making Sunday's result look even worse.
The phenomenon of conservative voters casting their ballots for the FDP for tactical reasons is far from theoretical. In January, the FDP was in danger of failing to clear the five percent hurdle in Lower Saxony state elections. But some 100,000 CDU voters made the tactical decision to support the party, resulting in an astounding 9.9 percent result for the FDP -- and a disappointing showing for the CDU. The CDU and FDP under conservative state Governor David McAllister ultimately lost the election in the state to the SPD and Greens.
No Love from the CDU
It is an experience that the CDU would prefer not to repeat, particularly in Sunday's vote. It is, after all, becoming increasingly obvious that German voters are more interested in a grand coalition -- matching up Merkel's conservatives with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) -- than a continuation of the chancellor's alliance with the FDP. A new survey carried out by the pollsters at Emnid for the newsmagazine Focus shows that 26 percent of those asked would like to see a grand coalition against just 17 percent favoring a center-left coalition and only 13 percent wanting to see a continuation of Merkel's current pairing.
As such, Merkel is in no mood to sanction any strategy that might eat into her share of the votes on Sunday. Should she find herself in coalition negotiations next week with the SPD, every additional vote for her camp translates into valuable leverage. Indeed, she is actively campaigning for CDU voters not to cast their second vote to aid the FDP. In a campaign TV spot that has been running for several weeks now, the candidate admonishes voters, "Both votes for the CDU."
Senior CDU members were at pains on Monday morning to nip the FDP strategy in the bud. Party General Secretary Hermann Gröhe on Monday morning told German public radio station Deutschlandfunk that "the second vote is a vote for Merkel and we want it for the conservatives." He was echoed by senior CDU member Armin Laschet, who said on public television that "it is important that CDU voters cast their ballots for the CDU."
So what will happen to the FDP next week? Polls show that it will be close. A survey conducted by INSA for Focus and released on Sunday found that nationwide support for the party stands at 4 percent.