Christian Lindner isn't one to follow his gut on an important decision. First, he has to have the right slogan to go with it.
Last Sunday, the leader of the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), flanked by a group of party loyalists, read out a lengthy statement in Berlin. He spoke of the "countless contradictions and open questions," that still remained between the FDP and the other three parties that had been involved in Germany's coalition negotiations. He complained that the weeks of talks between his party and the Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Greens, had neither created a "common basis of trust" nor achieved "any further movement."
And then, just before he disappeared into the Berlin night, he uttered a phrase that he had allegedly only formulated a few hours earlier with his negotiating team: "It is better not to govern than to govern badly." The party then posted those words online as a graphic image. Oddly, though, the graphic had already been produced three days earlier, on the Thursday that had been the original deadline for the end of the coalition talks.
Marketing first is Lindner's mantra, even when - like last Sunday - it leads to a government crisis of a kind never seen in Germany's postwar history. Eight weeks after the national election, voters still don't know what the next government will look like. Germany, which is so often regarded as an "anchor of stability" in Europe, will for months be a country marked by instability and chaos. And Lindner has ensured that the FDP, for decades a constant presence in German governments, won't be in power for quite some time to come.
With his slickly-staged withdrawal from the talks, under the spotlights in late-night Berlin, Lindner wants to achieve more than the "trend reversal" he mentions in his tweets. No, the FDP boss hopes to turn his party into a middle-class protest movement of the kind led by Emmanuel Macron in France and Sebastian Kurz in Austria. He has long-since sought to establish a similar cult of personality and he copies their rhetorical attacks against the elites, the media and the so-called ruling establishment. And like Kurz and Macron, he wants to reinvent the political order, which means shaking up the FDP's own political position, placing them to the right of Chancellor Merkel's CDU on some issues. One of those is refugee policy, on which the FDP has sounded more like the CSU, a party that has at times bordered on the reactionary. When it comes to Europe, the party has become extremely skeptical of the common currency.
Lindner wants to turn the FDP into a political movement, one centered on himself and with the ambition of achieving reliable double-digit support in future elections. Ulf Poschart, editor-in-chief of the conservative daily Die Welt, even gushed recently that the FDP could finally grow out of its role as junior coalition partner and ultimately lay claim to the Chancellery. Under Lindner's leadership, of course.
At What Price?
In the meantime, the political establishment has been left to clean up the mess that Lindner left behind. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier now faces the task of facilitating the formation of a government, preferably without having to resort to new elections. The Christian Democrats will have to decide whether Merkel will continue to lead them while the SPD has to reflect on whether they are willing to enter another alliance with the CDU and CSU and, if so, at what price. Would Merkel or Martin Schulz have to give way to make another such alliance happen?
Another few years of a grand coalition, devoid of passion or ideas, would then, according to Lindner's calculations, allow him to reap the benefits in opposition.
Still, even if Lindner hopes to profit from widespread voter frustration in Germany, it's not clear that he can pull it off. The way he walked out of the talks was so transparently staged and so poorly justified that his grand masterplan might just be a roadmap to nowhere. That at least is how many voters see it. In one survey, 55 percent blamed the FDP for the collapse of the coalition talks while only 8 percent thought the party would benefit most from fresh elections. The FDP may be less "en marche" than "en retour."
Lindner knows the risks and he is prepared to take them. He is a political gambler who plays for the highest stakes, just like the former SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. The difference is that Schröder risked his party to help reform the country. With Lindner, however, the wellbeing of the party comes first, and then the country.
So, it's little wonder that Lindner's main priority in the coalition talks was to make sure that the FDP would no longer be taken for granted by the CDU merely as an appendage, a willing junior partner to the Merkel power machine. From the very beginning, Lindner was one of the most critical of the "Jamaica" coalition, so named because the colors associated with the parties involved are the same as those on the Jamaican flag. He insisted that the chances of reaching a deal were only 50:50.
And that remained the case even toward the end of last week, when it became clear that the FDP would achieve many of its most important demands, while the Greens and the CSU were even coming closer to an agreement on refugees. But even on Saturday, Lindner was still saying he doubted Jamaica would work.
By then, if not before, the Greens had begun to fear that the FDP was preparing to let the talks collapse. It was the elephant in the room, even as the subgroups continued their work. They kept discussing climate and transportation policy, as if nothing had happened, as if they could still find a solution. But all the delegations involved were now looking for signs that their counterparts were losing their nerve. And such was the level of distrust when Sunday began, the day of reckoning.
Open to Compromise
The day started with Lindner asking to speak separately with the conservatives. He held a rolled-up copy of the Bild am Sonntag newspaper in his hand, featuring quotes from senior Green party negotiator Jürgen Trittin, who accused the FDP of wanting to send weapons to Yemen.
Nevertheless, compromises were achieved as the day progressed. The solidarity tax, which goes to aid the reconstruction of eastern Germany, was largely scrapped in accordance with the wishes of the FDP. And an agreement was also found on data protection once Merkel made it clear Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, of the CDU, that he had little choice but to relent to the demands being made by the FDP and Greens.
The Greens proved more open to compromise than the FDP or the conservatives had expected. They accepted that some North African states should be considered safe countries of origin, which would allow Germany to send failed asylum seekers back. The Greens were also prepared to accept restrictions to the family reunification of refugees already in Germany and they even were willing to give up their opposition to transit zones. Indeed, some conservatives began wondering whether the Greens would support the deal once it was submitted to the party for approval.
Nevertheless, everything seemed to be going in the right direction as the parties returned to the smaller negotiating groups. There are differing accounts of how those later talks went. According to Lindner, Merkel reneged on some important compromises. Yet the Merkel camp insists nothing essential had changed.
Whatever the case, the FDP had run out of patience. Lindner and his team worked on their statement, key elements of which had been prepared long in advance. At 11 p.m. the parties met again, with each party asked if they wished to continue. Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CSU, was the first to outline his view on the state of the negotiations. He said that while there were outstanding points, there was scope for agreement. "For the CSU, I can say that we can envisage a Jamaica coalition," he said.
Lindner then replied that he didn't see any prospect of an agreement. Politicians from the other parties tried to change his mind, with Alexander Dobrindt of the CSU having a go, followed by Cem Özdemir, co-leader of the Greens. Then Katrin Göring-Eckhardt, the other Green party leader, said that she shared Lindner's view that there was no basis for trust. She argued, however, that trust could develop by governing together.
Merkel was clearly annoyed and addressed Lindner harshly. One "cannot simply say, it's not working," she said. One "has to say why it is not working." So, she insisted: "What is the reason then?" The FDP boss countered: "I don't see where we can implement the basic concepts of innovation, competitiveness and modernization in a Jamaica coalition."
A Difficult Situation
There was back and forth for a few minutes and then Merkel suddenly looked at her mobile phone. She saw that the FDP had already issued a press release announcing the collapse of the talks. At that point the CSU also had no interest in continuing the talks, and Seehofer said: "It's 11:26 p.m. I'm noting the time because this is now a development that will have meaning far beyond Germany and Europe and whose result we cannot foresee."
And that was the end of the Jamaican dream. Everyone shook hands and the FDP team left the room. The Greens and conservatives stayed behind and watched Lindner read out his statement on television. There was much shaking of heads. Then they discussed what this would mean for Germany. Someone mentioned Lebanon and the crisis concerning its prime minister, who had apparently been detained during a state visit to Saudi Arabia. "Who is going to deal with that now?" one of those present asked.
Everyone was aware that the end of the coalition talks places Germany in a difficult situation. The old coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats is staying in office as a caretaker government, but it no longer has the backing of parliament. All important decisions are on hold, not just in Berlin, but also in Brussels. And there are important decisions to be made, from the Brexit negotiations to the planned reform of the euro zone. The EU will find it difficult to act as long as there is no new government in Berlin. As a result, the pressure is growing on the SPD both at home and abroad to rethink its flat refusal to re-enter a coalition with the conservatives.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 48/2017 (November 23th, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.
President Steinmeier - who now, according to the German constitution, has the responsibility of guiding the process toward choosing the next chancellor - is one of those putting the most pressure on the Social Democrats. He himself is a former SPD minister, though his membership in the party is now on hold for the duration of his term as president. He would like to avoid new elections, saying the responsibility for forming a new government "cannot simply be handed back to the voters." Steinmeier plans a process that involves a series of one-on-one meetings with party leaders.
The Social Democrats were as surprised as anyone by the collapse of the coalition talks. No one expected it - or prepared for it. And it has focused the spotlight on the party's ongoing leadership debate.
SPD leader Martin Schulz is determined to stick to his rejection of a repeat of his party's outgoing coalition with the conservatives, a constellation known as a grand coalition. He prefers new elections and pushed through his decision with the party leadership at a meeting on Monday. The SPD executive then rushed to put that position in writing to avoid any impression of doubt within the party. "We believe it is important that the citizens are given the opportunity to reappraise the situation," the executive announced in a statement that had begun circulating publicly even before the meeting had come to an end.
Schulz is backed by leading party figures like floor leader Andrea Nahles and deputy leader Olaf Scholz. All three see another grand coalition as dangerous for the party. They know how unpopular it is with the party grassroots, a position that was reiterated in recent weeks at a number of regional conferences. Everywhere, the message was the same: No new partnership with the conservatives!
At the same time, all three are aware that the SPD could end up the biggest loser if an impression develops that the party is avoiding responsibility. That is why it is no longer taboo at party headquarters to discuss a change in strategy. Nahles has adopted a new formulation when enunciating her party's position: The SPD, she says, will of course enter discussions with Merkel, but it refuses to act merely as a tool for the chancellor to stay in power.
At the Mercy of a Gambler
This careful shift is likely a reaction to the horror among many Social Democrats at the prospect of new elections. No one knows what kind of campaign the party could run to have any real shot at power. And after new elections, wouldn't the party face the question of a grand coalition again anyway?
"Making any kind of rushed decisions now won't help at all," warned Johannes Kahr, head of the party's conservative wing. "There will now be a lot of discussions. And we should be open going into those talks. Before we go to the voters, we should exhaust all options," he said. "I don't see any article in the constitution that stipulates there must be fresh elections if the leader of the FDP breaks off coalition talks," said Achim Post, head of the SPD group in the North Rhine-Westphalia parliament. "It's the opposite: parties and parliamentary groups have a duty, particularly in a difficult situation, to carefully take things step by step."
And Martin Rabanus, the spokesman for the pragmatic wing in the party, the so-called Networkers, said: "New elections are not the right way. I am against the grand coalition, but we should calmly allow the president to hold talks and look at whether there are ways to avoid new elections."
It could be a difficult few weeks for Schulz and Nahles. That much was clear on Monday afternoon during a meeting of the parliamentary group when it became clear that the SPD representatives were not happy with the fact that they had not been consulted on the party leadership's statement about elections.
More than 40 Bundestag members spoke up during the meeting, around half of them addressed the party leaders' plans. Schulz in particular came under fire. Florian Post, a representative from Bavaria, complained that ever since the election, the SPD has been consumed by personnel debates. "If we run another campaign as great as the one last summer, we could end up below 20.5 percent not above 20.5 percent," he said, targeting Schulz. His comments were met with laughter, while Schulz was left reeling.
All But Certain
At the end of the three-hour meeting, Anette Kramme, a state secretary in the Labor Ministry, wanted to know who exactly would lead the party into a new election. It was a telling question: If Schulz's position as party leader was secure, the question would never have been asked. Schulz responded that he would be availing of his nomination right when the time came, so long as he was reelected SPD leader at the party conference in December.
That had long appeared all but certain. However, in the light of the great unrest within the SPD the conference could take on a new dynamic. That is Schulz's dilemma. If he succeeds in his push for new elections then the issue of his leadership comes back into play. And that could be difficult as no one really sees him running for chancellor again.
One way out for Schulz could be to make extremely tough demands on Merkel in any coalition talks. However, that is not so easy since the SPD has already pushed through so many of its key reforms, such as a minimum wage and reducing the retirement age to 63.
A failed Jamaica coalition, the prospect of difficult new elections. For the chancellor, the end of the talks on Sunday marked a turning point. For the first time since taking office in 2005, she has no parliamentary majority, and for the first time, she faces the prospect of having no willing partner to form a government. Could Merkel accept a third option: a minority government?
On Monday, she discussed that option with her team in the Chancellery. Merkel said she was against having to find majorities for every piece of legislation, sometimes with the backing of the SPD, sometimes with the Jamaica parties and sometimes perhaps even the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany. Such a situation was too unstable, she felt, particularly due to the current situation in Europe. They decided not to make that assessment public in order to avoid accusations from the SPD that Merkel was only interested in new elections.
Merkel has sought to use the Lindner chaos for her own purposes. In an interview with public broadcaster ZDF, she said that in the event of new elections, she would again offer her services as her party's candidate for chancellor. She was a woman who "has responsibility and is also ready to continue bearing responsibility," she said. Nobody in her party objected, which doesn't mean that dissatisfaction among the party ranks has disappeared. It's just that there's no one to take her place.
In a telephone conference with party leadership, Merkel listed where the CDU had pushed through its policies in the coalition talks, from refugee policy to the dismantling of the solidarity tax. Many speakers praised the way she led the talks. Even one of her fiercest critics, Jens Spahn, who is sometimes mentioned as a possible successor, praised her. And she was applauded by the parliamentary group. It's clear that for now her enemies in the party are keeping silent.
Even the weak election result in September is no longer a major theme in the party. In fact, a number of conferences that were scheduled to discuss it have now been cancelled. It's also unclear if the party conference in mid-December will go ahead as planned. It may be postponed, depending on how events unfold. The party leadership is meeting on Sunday and Merkel is to ask for their backing as she moves ahead.
At the CDU party headquarters in Berlin, thoughts are already turning to what positions to take during an election campaign. Merkel's reputation as an imaginative negotiator, one who can always find a way to bring the sides together in the end, has taken a hit.
However, the fact that the two sister parties, the CDU and the CSU, were not driven apart during the negotiations is being regarded as a success. And that could be an advantage should a new campaign be in the offing.
Ultimately, Merkel believes, the result could be a run-back of her current "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats - a government she could have had without new elections. It is also one that would intensify the ongoing debate among conservatives regarding what exactly they stand for after well over a decade of Merkel's leadership. And it would play into the hands of the AfD. The chancellor doesn't see a way out of this dilemma.
Many CDU leaders currently feel more closely aligned with the Greens than they do with the FDP, but are nevertheless wary of seeking to set up a conservative-Green minority government. The CSU would almost certainly make such a constellation difficult at best. As such, conservative parliamentarians are discussing a potential alternative scenario. Why not just go ahead with a chancellor vote in the Bundestag? There is a good chance, they believe, that Merkel would come away with an absolute majority, particularly since many SPD lawmakers are eager to avoid new elections out of fear of losing their seats. Plus, there are plenty of Green parliamentarians who want to see Merkel remain chancellor. The downside of such a scenario, however, is clear: Merkel would have to assemble a different majority every time she wanted to push a law through parliament.
Plenty of Questions
Conservatives from Merkel's wing of the party, meanwhile, have been generous in their praise of the conscientious role played by the Greens during the coalition negotiations. But it seems fair to doubt whether the grassroots of the Green party are open to such praise. Many believe the party leadership made too many compromises during the negotiations, with Greenpeace openly criticizing such conciliatoriness. The party is set to discuss the issue on Saturday in addition to settling on a strategy should new elections be called.
There are plenty of questions to address, including whether the party is still behind the two lead candidates Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Cem Özdemir. But the Greens also haven't yet had an opportunity to analyze and draw lessons from its own election results in September. "If we look closely at the result, we only received 0.5 percentage points more than four years ago, and back then, pretty much the entire party leadership had to step down," says a member of the federal leadership committee. The member says that the party can't simply carry on as though things had been perfect this time around - even if the party exhibited disciplined solidarity during the coalition talks.
Indeed, leadership questions will likely be almost impossible to avoid on Saturday, given that many Greens would like to clear a path for Robert Habeck to a party leadership position. Habeck was a key player during the coalition negotiations, but he is currently the environment minister of Schleswig-Holstein and party rules prevent those holding state offices from taking a federal leadership position in the party. Given the amount of grassroots support Habeck has, though, that rule may now be abandoned.
All of this is taking place because Christian Lindner would rather take his chances in opposition than assume the responsibilities associated with being in government. It is a risky bet, but can it succeed? The initial public reactions can't have been encouraging, but that doesn't necessarily mean much. Lindner's withdrawal from the coalition talks appears to be part of a long-term strategy: The ascent of the party to a position where it can operate at eye level with the conservatives.
Lindner likes to see himself as a risk-loving gambler and his political career is full of audacious decisions that paid off, beginning with his fortuitous choice as a 19-year-old to stand for election to party leadership in the FDP state chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia. No less daring was his takeover of the federal party leadership after the FDP's disastrous showing in 2013 elections. When it became apparent that the FDP would lose all its seats in the federal parliament that year, Lindner writes in his book "Schattenjahre" (Shadow Years), he made his decision without extensive thought. In the shower, he writes, he decided "to go for it."
In his description of this moment, he uncoincidentally uses a term from the world of poker: "all-in." Risking everything at once.
Yet Lindner is also an expert at making an early exit and has a dependable instinct for knowing when a cause has been lost. When a company that he helped found in 2000 faced bankruptcy, he managed to sell his stake just in time. And when the FDP, under the leadership of Philipp Rösler, began struggling mightily in 2011, Lindner resigned as general secretary to watch the party's rapid decline from the sidelines in North Rhine-Westphalia. It was his way of protecting himself from the collapse.
Indeed, after the 2013 election day debacle, Lindner was the only remaining leadership figure in the party, with virtually all other senior members leaving politics. It was a blank slate, putting Lindner in a perfect position to reshape the FDP according to his own whims. And soon he had amassed more power within the party than any FDP leader before him.
Lindner reorganized the tradition-rich party in accordance with the principles of modern-day business management. He brought in consultants to help the party better understand its image problem and to reorient itself. Relying on colorful graphs and charts, new positions were created and then filled.
Initially, however, significant changes had no effect whatsoever. For more than two years, the FDP limped along with public approval ratings hovering between 3 and 4 percent, sometimes even relegated to the "other" category in opinion polls. But that changed with the arrival of the refugee crisis.
Nothing helped the FDP get back on its feet more than Merkel's handling of the refugee question in 2015. She opened up the flank that Lindner so badly needed to sharpen his party's profile. He went hard after Angela Merkel, but he was even more unrelenting in his attacks on the right-wing populists from the AfD - effectively positioning the FDP on the right wing of the conservatives while maintaining the necessary distance from the far right. He provided a political home to those conservatives who were disappointed with Merkel's refugee policies but who didn't want to go so far as to vote for the AfD. By the beginning of 2016, the FDP was polling above 5 percent.
In a speech held in January 2017, Lindner took a stab at analyzing Donald Trump's election victory in the U.S. The new president, he said, had taken on the establishment, "which has forgotten the broad majority of society." In Germany, he concluded, the situation isn't much different, with conservatives, the SPD and the Greens all neglecting the center. "This center of society," Lindner said, "must once again be offered a political home among the responsible parties." His FDP, Lindner suggested, was exactly what they were looking for.
A Reasonable Alternative
But Lindner was also able to take advantage of a second development: Merkel's sliding popularity. The more support the chancellor lost as a result of the refugee crisis, the better the FDP felt. The party, after all, had paid mightily for its role as junior coalition partner in Merkel's second government from 2009 to 2013, with many coming away with the feeling that the chancellor had taken advantage of the FDP's good faith. Lindner never forgot that feeling of humiliation at the hands of a conservative party that watched indifferently as the FDP slid beneath the 5-percent hurdle even as Merkel herself almost won an absolute majority. He also found Merkel's leadership style to be patronizing. He believes that, during her coalition with the FDP, she acted as "a kind of legal guardian to a pubescent FDP."
Lindner has positioned his party as a kind of reasonable alternative to the Alternative for Germany, a place for voters to go who have been left behind by Merkel's leftward shift. That includes the conservative economic wing, a group that isn't fond of what they see as the Greens' environmental condescension. He also hopes to attract that group of voters who are frustrated with the "establishment" and who believe Merkel opened up Germany's borders without sufficient legal basis.
One of Lindner's strategies for attracting such voters is euro-skepticism. During the coalition negotiations, he repeatedly quoted the new government in the Netherlands, under the leadership of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his right-wing liberal party VVD. The coalition agreement between the VVD and several other parties is called "Confidence in the Future" and in the introduction to the Europe section, it says that "the EU has laid down rules that needlessly curtail member states' own responsibility." Lindner clearly sees the VVD and its leader Rutte as an example to be aspired to. Rutte, after all, has managed to transform the VVD - which has spent much of its existence as a junior coalition partner in governments led by other parties - into the country's strongest party.
Lindner's calculation is a simple one. He believes that no matter what comes next - whether it is a grand coalition or new elections - voters will reward the FDP for its fidelity to its principles and refusal to compromise. No matter what happens, Lindner is confident that his youth and relatively brief time on the national political stage gives him an advantage when compared to Merkel.
'Good For Our Country'
Still, even as Merkel's primary message is one of stability and continuity, Lindner relies on provocation. He claims to be catering to the needs of a neglected political center. In reality, however, he is deepening the societal divide he insists he is healing. It is a strategy that could very well blow up in his face. By walking out of coalition negotiations in the middle of the night, the FDP became the instant scapegoat for the failure of those talks. That could ultimately frighten away voters who saw the FDP as a clear alternative in the political center. "I don't understand Lindner's decision," says Gerhart Baum, a former FDP politician who was interior minister in the cabinet of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt from 1978 to 1982. "The (Jamaica) alliance could have been an interesting one." Baum says he doesn't know the details behind the collapse of the negotiations, but says "I know that it was possible to put something together that would have been good for our country."
The German economy is also broadly displeased with Lindner's decision to turn his back on the talks, particularly in the digital sector, where many of his supporters are to be found. "A Jamaica coalition would have been a great opportunity for the younger generation," says Florian Nöll, head of the German Startups Association. "Instead, we are now continuing to lose time." When compared to other countries, Germany's startup scene is far behind when it comes to access to capital and workers, Nöll claims. Bernhard Rohleder, head of the Federal Association for Information Technology, had likewise been hoping to see the FDP in government. "That opportunity has now been wasted."
There are, though, competing interpretations within the business community. BASF Supervisory Board Chairman Jürgen Hambrecht, who is an FDP member, defended Lindner's decision by saying: "Assignments of guilt from other parties are inappropriate." Daniel Zimmer, the former head of the Monopolies Commission in Germany, says the most important thing is that the FDP is back in parliament.
The most important question for the party, though, is whether it will play much of a role on the long term if it isn't prepared to go into government. Had Lindner dared to take the plunge, the FDP could have proved itself as a pro-business party with an environmental conscience, particularly if the party had been given the prestigious Finance Ministry portfolio.
But Lindner isn't the type for a traditional cabinet career. He doesn't want to be seen as the people's economist but as the people's voice - one who would rather stay out of government if it doesn't promise rapid success. His favored path to power, after all, doesn't lead through the ministries, but through the market square.
By Benedikt Becker, Christiane Hoffmann, Veit Medick, Ann-Katrin Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Michael Sauga, Jan Schulte and Gerald Traufetter