The World from Berlin: 'A Dynamic FDP Should Bring the CDU to Its Senses'

Germany's pro-business Free Democrats were deemed the big winners on election night, increasing their vote to almost 15 percent. Yet almost a week later, there are concerns that the party and its leader Guido Westerwelle may not be capable of pushing through their demands in a future coalition with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.

Guido Westerwelle, head of the Free Democrats (FDP), was one of the election's big winners. Zoom
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Guido Westerwelle, head of the Free Democrats (FDP), was one of the election's big winners.

If a week is a long time in politics, then in Germany the past week has been particularly lengthy. Just last Friday, Frank-Walter Steinmeier was addressing a rally at the Brandenburg Gate in central Berlin, asking voters to support his Social Democratic Party (SPD) and elect him chancellor. But by Sunday night that call had gone unheeded, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) had won the election and were poised to enter into coalition talks with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).

Since then, the knives have come out for most of the SPD leadership, though Steinmeier has managed to survive and was elected head of the SPD parliamentary group on Tuesday. Party leader Franz Müntefering is to step aside, as will its general secretary, Hubertus Heil, and deputy chair Peer Steinbrück, Germany's current finance minister. The party has even swiftly agreed on a new leadership troika of Steinmeier as floor leader, current Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel as party leader and Andrea Nahles, a prominent left-winger, as Heil's replacement as general secretary.

Meanwhile, the initial relief in the CDU quickly gave way to concerns that the center-right party might have to swallow reforms it was not comfortable with as part of any coalition agreement with the smaller FDP. The pro-business party, led by Guido Westerwelle, had made tax cuts a cornerstone of its campaign and with a resounding endorsement of almost 15 percent of the vote, the FDP should feel justified in pushing through those demands. However, Merkel has already pledged not to rush in any tax cuts and there are also demands from within her party to ring-fence other elements of the CDU's policy, such as the health fund introduced this year and protection for workers from being fired.

Now some commentators are concerned that the FDP could be left with a handful of ministers but no means of pushing through their core economic policies. On Friday, German papers take some more time to ponder the state of play five days after the election. Many are skeptical that the FDP will manage to prevail against Merkel and the CDU.

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"The FDP livened up the debate over the coalition program in the first few days after the election, irrespective of whether it was over workers' protection from dismissal, the health fund, minimum wage or energy. The business community was pleased while their prospective coalition partner was annoyed."

"However, it is one thing to make demands, quite another to push them through. … The way it looks now, the liberals have to be careful not to be robbed of their program."

"There is a great fear of messing up. There already those in the party who are worried that they may be moving into a new house with the chancellor but that they will be shoved into the side wings."

"That must not be allowed to happen. It was Angela Merkel's weakness when it came to reform that was one of the main reasons for business people and the self-employed to turn in their droves to the liberals. No to mention the hope that a dynamic FDP would bring a CDU that had become too similar to the center-left Social Democrats to its senses."

"The coalition negotiations haven't started yet. It may be too early to draw definitive conclusions from the first observations. However, the FDP should see the brilliant election result as a mandate from the voters to push through the necessary reforms that they had demanded while in opposition: to simplify the tax system, renew the social system, make sure there is more competition and find the right energy mix."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The results of the German election will have a greater and possibly more profound effect on the current relations in German domestic politics then the politicians in Berlin can yet imagine. They are still acting as if this was a normal change in majorities, complete with the necessary changes in personnel and negotiations over details that this entails. However, the collapse of the vote for what were up to now mass parties, as well as the drop in voter turnout, will be occupying the party leaderships, the future government and the new opposition long into the future. And the events following the election are a writing on the wall of what may be to come."

"The future coalition partners, the CDU, CSU and FDP, have wasted the first week of their work together. The parties have acted … as if they had not realized that they would or even wanted to form a government together. There is no sign anywhere of a common reform project that could be presented following 11 years of social democratic policies in government. It is not just the worsening situation of the public finances that will limit their room for maneuver when it comes to the negotiations. The CDU governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Jürgen Rüttgers, is heading into an election campaign for the state parliament and he will do everything he can to make sure that the FDP's wishes -- tax cuts, making it easier for companies to fire people, scrapping the health fund -- will not be fulfilled. And the CSU leader Horst Seehofer will be on hand in the fight against the 'neo-liberals.' Chancellor Angela Merkel will have to show consideration for these differing points of view, something she is willing to do."

"As for the SPD, it now has finished with the business of clearing out people. Apart from Steinmeier, all of Gerhard Schröder's allies and those who supported his Agenda 2010 policy are gone: Müntefering, current floor leader Peter Struck, Steinbrück. It is a pity Steinmeier will not become party leader. He may not have Sigmar Gabriel's rhetorical skills or the way he can quickly change his evaluation of political issues to suit new circumstances. And he is not as well anchored in the party as Andrea Nahles. Yet he incorporates core elements of social democracy, which it needs in order to be capable of governing: dependability, realism and entrenchment with groups of voters who do not belong to the core SPD grassroots. His political understanding that the opposition needs to be ready at any time to take over in government could yet be revealed to be an asset."

"The voters who turned out and those who stayed at home have made the old German system (two big parties and many small ones) into something more resembling those of its European neighbors. The big parties are no longer big, and the small parties are no longer small. This trend could continue."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung looks at the developments in the SPD:

"The new center of power in the SPD is on the left. … The old front guard is finished. The fact that Frank-Walter Steinmeier is staying on as head of the parliamentary group will prove to be a mistake. The SPD has to be able to attack where it still has a platform: in parliament. And which party emerges as the leading opposition party will not be decided by how big their parliamentary party is but by the abilities of their leader. Steinmeier lacks the distance from being in government. But he also lacks the ruthlessness and ability to polemicize that is needed for a successful opposition. The parliamentary group will soon notice this and they will also realize that Steinmeier is an expression of a continuation of Schröder's politics, which could put them on the defensive."

"The party itself has managed the break with the coalition of the SPD and Greens, and with the grand coalition. The new personnel reveals as much of a fresh start as the party can manage at the moment. It is an experiment, the result of which remains unknown. Yet it is the only possible chance for the SPD to repair the loss in trust. No one can tell if this will win back the destroyed party base or those who were disappointed and have long turned away. There is no guarantee that the SPD can return to being a mass party."

-- Siobhán Dowling

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