The Death Knells of Centrist German Liberalism-The Rise of the AfD and fall of the FDP

Bolton Smith

Bolton Smith is a full-time intern at AICGS during the summer of 2014, where his duties include writing the AICGS Notizen Daily, assisting with the contact database, summarizing AICGS events, and contributing to the AICGS Notizen Blog. He is particularly interested in the Foreign & Domestic Policy and Society, Culture & Politics Programs at AICGS, focusing on defense policy as well as party politics in Germany.


Mr. Smith is currently a rising junior at Davidson College, where he is a double major in Political Science and German Studies. Mr. Smith will spend his junior year in Berlin at Humboldt University studying Politics and Literature, and hopes to gain working fluency in German. Mr. Smith intends to eventually pursue a J.D., focusing on International Law, specifically in regard to the European Union.

The rapid growth of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany has certainly been a clear departure from the mood of German politics prior to the most recent Bundeswahl (Federal Election). Before this, it seemed as if Germany was the rock solid bastion of positivity towards the EU and particularly salient European Monetary Union-skeptic (EMU) arguments were somewhat Verboten on the main political stage. This positivity was especially evident when compared to France, whose euro-skeptic, far-right   Front Nationale had –and still has– solid political power and even once made an appearance in the French Presidential run-off in 2002. But despite the wave of Euroskeptic empowerment sweeping across Europe and causing headaches for mainstream parties, Germany’s political “problem child” seems a more immediate–and possibly even terminal–threat to the FDP than to the main parties.

In the last government, when the FDP held its strongest proportional power with 14 percent of the vote, the party occupied key ministerial positions in federal government coalitions with powerful politicians, such as former Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor Guido Westerwelle. But things went poorly for the FDP in the 2013 election, when they went into the Bundeswahl with a unclear electoral agenda , a loss of identity to the CDU –post Kohl-era–as well as unpopular party leadership, all culminating in  a disastrous defeat from which the FDP has not recovered.  Today, the weakened FDP is grasping to hold onto its last remaining government coalition in the state of Saxony (Freistaat Sachsen), where its ten percentage points are used to nudge the dominant CDU into a government majority. This summer, Saxony goes to the polls to elect a new state government, and if the most recent numbers hold steady, the AfD will ascend to the Saxon parliament while the FDP will be removed from their last position of major power.

A growing problem

During the most recent German Federal Election campaign in 2013, the result of which saw FDP and AfD barely fall short of the five percent minimal electoral threshold, mainstream parties would not entertain the idea of a possible coalition with the AfD. But after recent electoral success in the European elections, and with positive forecasts for state-elections this summer, CDU state governments in the eastern portion of Germany have seen the potential necessity of a CDU/AfD coalition. When asked about whether they would consider a coalition with the AfD, Steffen Flath, leader of the CDU state parliamentary faction in Saxony, dodged the question by simply saying “no Left (die Linke) and no NPD (far right).” While this answer is not definite confirmation of the Saxon CDU being open to AfD cooperation, recent poll numbers from Saxony predict that the AfD will win seven percent while the FDP will only scrap up a meager three percent. While 7 percent may not be enough to project power unilaterally, the CDU is expected to earn forty-five percent of the vote, five short of being able to form a government without coalition partners. But with their preferred partner, FDP, potentially out of parliament, the CDU must look elsewhere to form a government. Of course the CDU could form a coalition with SPD, as it does at the federal level, but with the SPD rising in polls across the country as well as their strong showing at the European elections, letting the SPD get any kind of foothold in Saxony could be problematic in the long term. The Greens are another option, and Green-CDU coalitions have been attempted with relative success at the state level. However, if Saxon CDU politicians see AfD as a rising power across Germany, they may believe that learning to cooperate with this new party could be more profitable than attempting to make the Green party the new default coalition partner. The situation could change before the late-August election, but if the FDP are not in parliament, the Saxon CDU will have to make an extremely difficult decision in forming their next coalition government.

Is there a chance for a recovery?

Unfortunately for the FDP, a package of classical liberal ideas merged into the modern German political culture is not politically attractive enough to inspire the masses to inflate its power. Unlike other small parties, such as Bündnis 90/die Grünen, Alternative für Deutschland, and even die Piraten, the FDP cannot proudly carry the banner of a critical niche issue and rally groups of passionate voters around it. In today’s political climate, it seems that passionate cries for Energiewende, EMU skepticism, social justice, and internet freedom chanted from the megaphones of activists on the street speak louder than the written philosophical arguments of Emmanuel Kant, F. A. Hayek, and other political philosophers in support of classical liberalism.

If there is one man who can possibly stop the “political bleeding out,” it is Christian Lindner, the national leader of the FDP. Lindner was originally brought to the leadership of the FDP due to his organizational skills at the state level, highlighted in his ability to defy pundits and lead the FDP to an unexpectedly high result in the 2012 state elections in North-Rhineland Westphalia. The question remains: can he bring that same political skill to Saxony and help keep the FDP in at least one governing coalition. If he fails to keep the FDP in the Saxon parliament altogether, which it appears that he will indeed fail to do, then the future for the FDP is bleak.

Politics, much like the free market capitalism the FDP supports, is about innovation in the delivery of the central message and in the marketing of ideas in a way appealing to the greatest number of people. The FDP once had a good product that the German people depended on to balance out the dueling political titans of the CDU/CSU and SPD. But with political actors such as Bündnis 90/die Grünen on the left and AfD on the right growing in political prominence, Germany may see an odd, polarized coalition system with no middle balancing party. Less likely, AfD or die Grünen could come towards the middle and try to form their own style of centrist politics. But with the German voters voting FDP out of power across the country, the other small parties may want to remain in their partisan corners for the time being and stay out of the politically toxic middle, which has turned into an ideological “no man’s land.” It seems, furthermore, that as the AfD evolves to better suit domestic politics, it has alienated its liberal wing, causing the AfD to polarize more and more to the right of the political spectrum. Where the political climate of Germany is going will be largely determined by the results of upcoming state elections as well as economic impacts of the Energiewende and EU policy from Brussels. But if current trends continue, Germany will see the AfD gain prestige, legitimacy, and actual power by forming the governing coalition with the CDU in Saxony while the FDP quietly continues its slip into political irrelevance.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.