German Bundestag Election 2021: Who is the FDP?

An analysis by Andreas Herteux, head of the Erich von Werner Society. 

First published in The Australian Jewish Times

Elections in Germany are followed with the greatest interest around the world, because they are of central importance for relations with other states.  Now the Bundestag election is just around the corner, and it is likely to make a variety of coalitions possible. One hotly contested partner is the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

The FDP has had several phases in its history in which Israel was viewed critically, but since the Westerwelle era at the latest it has been committed to unadulterated solidarity, cooperation and friendship:

„The security and the right of existence of Israel are for us German reason of state, the protection of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is and remains for us fundamental pillars of German foreign and security policy. We are committed to ensuring that Germany the deepening of the close and friendly relations between Germany and Israel and to promote joint civil society activities, further expand economic, cultural and scientific cooperation […]. “ [1]

Therefore, who are the liberals? Where do they come from? Who votes for the party? What is the strategy 2021 and what result can be expected?

What was the development of the FDP?

Although the liberal roots of the FDP lie in the 19th century, the Free Democratic Party was founded only after the Second World War, in 1948, but followed in personnel and topics earlier political organizations and associations of the same spectrum.

After the war and into the 1990s, the party went through several phases in which the emphasis was variable: Sometimes they tended to position themselves national-liberal, then social-liberal and now primarily pro-business. The FDP was very often in government and was, in the clear party system of West Germany, long the famous tongues on the scales, which changed only with the arrival of the Greens in the Bundestag. Often with the orientation also the heads and the voters changed, e.g. many social-liberal party functionaries, but also voters of the FDP turned their backs after the coalition break in 1982 and the interest of economically oriented forces became bigger. The latter development gave rise to the image of an economic or patronage party, which basically, whether justified or not, still shapes the ideas about the Free Democrats today.

After failing to be re-elected to the Bundestag in 2013, the party failed to clear the 5% hurdle, it returned in 2017 with 10.7%. Since then, the FDP has been in opposition, but now has realistic chances of once again becoming part of a governing coalition.

Who votes for the FDP?

The hard core of FDP sympathizers was rarely larger than 4%. In these regular voters can also be identified the classic voter of the Liberals: He is usually already over 50 (about 65%), male and earns more than 3000 euros net per month. He is content with himself and personal freedom stands out for him as the most important value. The rest of the voters the FDP tries to win, at least since the era of Westerwelle, by „attention election campaigns“. These are characterised above all by the innovative effort and presentation as well as a targeted concentration of the election campaign on one person.

Unsurprisingly, the Greens can be identified as the Liberals‘ biggest political rival, as they also attract a wealthier clientele. Only then do the CDU and CSU follow. The FDP has always been a popular alternative for disappointed CDU/CSU voters, and there are also many overlapping themes. The party therefore appeals to a surprisingly large number of milieus, but is firmly anchored in very few of them. Since the Liberals also tend time and again to want to mobilise dissatisfied and non-voters in a targeted manner, there can also be competitive situations with parties that act in a similar way.

The basic potential of a liberal party is estimated at 20 to 25%. But this would include all liberal wings, from national, social to economic liberal. The FDP cannot serve all of them, however, because it lacks the personnel, structural and financial resources to do so. Its recipe for success – for years – has been concentration.

What is the FDP’s campaign strategy?

Since the FDP does not have enough core voters to secure entry into the Bundestag, the missing percentage points must be won through an effective campaign. These campaigns are usually characterized by three elements:

  • The party is personified and bundled into one person
  • Topics are not treated in depth, but are presented in catchy buzzwords
  • The message is delivered in an innovative, modern and high-profile way

Bundling the party into one person is a popular way for the FDP of the modern era to use its limited resources effectively, because what was once Guido Westerwelle is now Christian Lindner: the FDP. It is therefore no coincidence that the party leader dominates the image of the Free Democrats, but just as intentional, albeit repeatedly criticized behind closed doors.

Thematically, the FDP tends to address issues in buzzwords, but in the end avoids a certain depth and definition. In addition, there is a typical „watering down“ strategy, which aims to avoid presenting any negative consequences of its own proposals too clearly to the voters. Positive-voiced declarations of intent without rough edges. An approach, however, that is ultimately used by almost all parties in the 2021 federal election campaign.

The person and the issues are presented as modernly and effectively as possible, and ideally in such a way as to generate reactions in the media, which in turn report on the nature of the election campaign, rather than on the content of the Liberals. A typical example would be the special black and white look of the election posters, which very often focus on the party leader. In times gone by, it was also allowed to be a bit shriller, for example with the Guido-Mobile.

With this strategy, the FDP manages to generate maximum attention from a limited budget. That, too, is a tradition. Basically, the Lindner FDP is copying and modernising the election campaign strategy of the Westerwelle party.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that the party has also been able to raise its profile in terms of content since the last election, even if external circumstances were more responsible for this than a concrete and implemented plan.  On the one hand, by the fact that it had refused in 2017, because of programmatic disagreements, to enter into a Jamaica coalition, an alliance with CDU/CSU (Union) and Alliance 90/The Greens, and thus has demonstrated steadfastness. Although the FDP was not infrequently predicted by observers here negative consequences, it thus succeeded in shedding the image of the „Umfallerpartei“. Ultimately, a historic achievement in the party’s history, which has rarely been appreciated.

On the other hand, the liberals benefit from the possibility of a left-wing alliance of Greens, SPD and Left. The abstract concept of freedom can thus be presented in a much more concrete way. Overall, the party’s credibility has therefore increased significantly.

Nevertheless, this raises the question of whether the election campaign is perhaps being conducted with too little ambition. Given the changing times and the weakness of the political competition, would it really have been presumptuous to try to exploit the potential? Perhaps to propagate its own candidacy for chancellor? Certainly, the means are limited and failed attempts such as „Project 18“ not forgotten, nevertheless it is an interesting question, but ultimately can only lead to speculation.

If, however, the FDP should strive for this in the future, it will have to consider how it wants to fill the three liberal wings with heads and issues. The strategy of the one-man party would only be suitable to a limited extent, but it would give the party a long-term chance to penetrate spaces that are no longer occupied or have not yet been occupied by the political competition.the age ofcollective individualism, behavioural capitalism, milieu struggles and the homostimulusbe more than enoughtopics around freedom The party just has to discover them for itself.

Forecast for the Bundestag election

The FDP will enter the Bundestag and become a sought-after partner for government participation. After 2017, the party is ripe for taking responsibility again. The result should, barring unforeseen events, be in the range of 10 – 14%. Whether this means that the potential for 2021 has been exhausted, on the other hand, can be left open.


[1] Decision on Israel at the 72nd Ordinary Party Congress, 14 – 16.05.2021

Veröffentlicht von Erich von Werner Gesellschaft

Die Erich von Werner Gesellschaft ist eine unabhängige Forschungseinrichtung. Sie analysiert politische, wirtschaftliche und gesellschaftliche Zusammenhänge sowie Veränderungen und bildet diese in Theorien und Modellen ab. Gleichzeitig erarbeitet sie Lösungen für globale Herausforderungen in einer sich immer schneller wandelnden Zeit. Leiter der Erich von Werner Gesellschaft ist Andreas Herteux.

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