Adapt or Lose Relevance
The parameters of political parties are set by intention and adaptation. The intention of a party is to define a message and recruit a following. The adaptation part is making sure you don’t lose touch with either the message or the audience. In an age when voters are ever more able to quickly react and mobilize themselves, party leaders are challenged to keep up with them if they want to stay relevant and in office. Those that don’t keep up pay the political price.

Such challenges can arise almost overnight. Ask the Republican Party leaders in Washington about their struggle with the tea party during the past year. Or ask the FDP in Germany about its dramatic loss of support and credibility following its greatest national election win in the fall of 2009.

In fact, one can ask all the party leaders in Germany about what Obama recently called the “shellacking” they have experienced – meaning the loss of traction among voters. Even the Greens, who may now see their greatest moment of triumph in Baden-Württemberg, should keep in mind that they just failed in building a coalition in another state – Hamburg – last year.

The fact is that all political parties in Germany are challenged by the same two questions: What do we stand for and, if we have a message, is it being received by the voters?

A Shift in Party Power
Political metrics indicate that most of them are not coming up with a persuasive answer to either question. Membership in the CDU and the SPD has been declining for years. The Greens and the FDP have been able to sustain their core support groups within a predictable if smaller range for the past three decades, but without significant increases in numbers. The recent success the FDP had in the 2009 national elections was attributed to the disappointment of CDU voters who wandered to the Liberals, not necessarily to an explosive growth in core support. The same thing happened to the CDU’s sister party, the CSU, in Bavaria in 2008.

Meanwhile, the Greens have managed to gain support and are now represented in all state parliaments but one (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), having conquered the conservative bastion of southwest Germany and riding high in the polls. But it is not clear whether that translates into greater numbers of sustained voter loyalty.

What mobilizes voters today is the same as always: Self-interest and trust in political leaders. That dramatic events, at home or abroad, can play a role is evident, yet how much of an impact is not clear. The events in Japan clearly helped to rally support for the Greens in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. But can the events in Fukushima explain the losses for the Social Democrats in Mainz and for the Liberals in places where they had strong support for decades? It is hard to tell so soon after the fact.

The Case of the FDP
The case of the FDP is now of particular interest as there is a major change in leadership emerging out of recent electoral losses. Guido Westerwelle’s decision to resign from party leadership has unleashed a national discussion about the future of the party but its trials and tribulations are also illustrative of larger trends in Germany’s political landscape.

Apart from the idiosyncrasies of Westerwelle as party leader, the past decade has seen the FDP maneuver through a period of being in the opposition at the national level while – until recently – picking up support in several state elections. The role of the Liberals was always cast as being a defender of individual freedom, more personal responsibility, limited government, and low taxes. The party was always confined to a small percentage of support, but it was always enough to form coalitions mostly with the CDU but also with the SPD for most of the past six decades. It was known as the Zünglein an der Waage (the party that tips the scales), sometimes much to the chagrin of the coalition partners.

The Liberals were also defined in public by their leaders, the people who embodied the message of the party: Thomas Dehler, Theodor Heuss, Walter Scheel, Otto Graf Lambsdorff, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and Guido Westerwelle, among others. After the recent elections, Health Minister Philipp Rösler’s name can be added to that list of party leaders, at least temporarily. Rösler certainly fits the FDP’s desire for youth and a new direction in a new chairman, but many have questioned his ability to establish that direction given the rocky relations with the federal coalition partners. Still, Rösler is seen by many voters as a much more sympathetic figure that Westerwelle ever was, so he does bring some optimism with his selection as party chair.

The events leading up to the current meltdown of the FDP have much to do with the fact that, despite its electoral win in 2009, the party has been unable to deliver on many of its key issues. The economic crisis – along with a lack of willingness on Merkel’s part – prevented headway in tax reform, a major part of their platform, and the debates over nuclear energy issues in the wake of Fukushima left the FDP looking adrift after they had pushed to keep the power plants running.

Well-positioned Greens
But there is also a larger question about how the role of a liberal party can be positioned in today’s Germany. The Green Party has successfully managed to move into the electorate usually associated with the FDP at the state and local level by focusing on education and immigration policies as well as energy and climate issues. The Greens have moved well beyond the party of the eco-fanatics and have become far more engaged in the issues of immediate importance to their constituencies. The best example of that is the future Minister-President of Baden Württemberg, Green Party leader Winfried Kretschmann, who embodies the stereotype of the practical and conservative Swabian. How well he can govern his state remains to be seen; moving from three decades of opposition politics into the governing role is going to be a tough challenge for Kretschmann and his party, especially with the immediate challenge of the Stuttgart 21 train station.

Returning to the FDP, it appears that the party is suffering from a loss of its message but also from the transformation of German society. The traditional parameters which marked the political camps – be it through the churches, labor unions, political party affiliation, and indeed the issues driving the national agenda – are changing. The magnetism of a liberal party – which appealed to the values of individual freedom and responsibility – is having a hard time competing with the forces of globalization and the fears many have for their future. Those fears result in a greater emphasis on the role of the state in dealing with threats and challenges, and the FDP message of greater personal responsibility and less state conflicts with that trend. The Greens, however, have been able to take more advantage of these forces in their campaigns and platforms with clear results.

Meanwhile, the larger parties, the CDU and the SPD, are coping with changes in their own ranks. The Social Democrats received a serious wakeup call in Baden-Württemberg when they became the junior partner in a coalition with the Greens while at the same time seeing their support decline steeply next door in Rhineland-Palatinate. The CDU appeared to stay more stable in their ranks but was still unable to secure victory in the three recent elections, despite modest gains in Rhineland-Palatinate. It also lost the government in Germany’s largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, last year.

Americanized Politics in Germany?
There are some who argue that German politics is becoming more Americanized with increasing focus on the persona of the candidates. Chancellor Merkel appears to maintain her personal popularity while her party takes more political hits, which sounds a lot like Obama. But the president’s first two years in office offer warnings as to the limits of personal popularity; Obama will find out what that means in November of 2012.

But the more important focus should be on the changes which shape Germany’s economic, social, and even psychological makeup. While the economic picture looks good at the moment, Germans are worried that it may not be able to hold up. The drama over the euro and the status of the EU members in economic trouble are central fears for Germany’s future. The debate over Islam and immigration continues to rattle the country as do sinking demographic trends pointing toward serious trouble in the future. And trouble around the world, be it in Northern Africa, Afghanistan, or in Japan, poses questions and demands about Germany’s willingness to respond.

Whether the FDP can find its own answers to these challenges is only one dimension of Germany’s political debates, albeit an illustrative one. While a change of personnel may be one way of dealing with a party in trouble, the longer run demands a change of political message – and an audience which wants to hear it. That audience was clearly there during the last election and should be able to be reclaimed with a strong enough argument. The ball is now in Rösler’s court.


This essay appeared in the April 7, 2011, AICGS Advisor.