Political star turns around fortunes of German party

Free Democratic Party (FDP) leader Christian Lindner (in blue suit) with supporters eager to take a picture with him during a campaign rally in Dusseldorf, Germany, last Saturday. With Mr Lindner putting the spotlight back on the FDP, the party could
Free Democratic Party (FDP) leader Christian Lindner (in blue suit) with supporters eager to take a picture with him during a campaign rally in Dusseldorf, Germany, last Saturday. With Mr Lindner putting the spotlight back on the FDP, the party could become the kingmakers in Germany's general election.PHOTO: REUTERS

Some have compared them to Calvin Klein advertisements, others have made fun of them as publicity for dating websites.

In the run-up to yesterday's general election, Germany's Free Democratic Party (FDP) has caught the public eye with its atmospheric black-and-white campaign posters, many focusing on its 38-year-old leader Christian Lindner, complete with his week-long stubble.

Condemned to the political wilderness after crashing out of Parliament in the 2013 election, the FDP is staging a comeback and could once again take on its traditional role as "kingmakers" - possibly becoming a junior partner in Germany's next coalition government.

That turnaround has been largely credited to Mr Lindner, who took over as leader shortly after the 2013 debacle and brought the party back into the limelight.

"The FDP is the upward climber of the election campaign. Because its boss has offered these unique selling points: digitalisation, stricter refugee policies and, above all, himself," said Zeit weekly.

"Without him, the FDP would be nothing: He is a political talent, omnipresent in talk shows, in which he out-talks every opponent," it added.

Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily also noted that "while the liberals had previously complained that others were accusing them of a one-man show, now they have decided to go on the offensive - Lindner is it and that's what we'll show everyone".

Mr Lindner himself said his party's campaign "aims to show what we stand for and what we think the country should be - fresh, modern, open, new paths, new ideas".

This image of a modern party with ideas for the future rubs up against the two big established parties - Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and her rival Martin Schulz's Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), both criticised for focusing too much on maintaining the country's comfortable status quo rather than investing in the future.

Mr Lindner has been active in politics from a young age, and was also an entrepreneur. He joined the FDP at just 15 and became the youngest lawmaker in the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia when he was 21.

He ran a public relations (PR) consultancy when he was 17, and later founded an Internet company which went bust when the bubble burst.

Mr Lindner's posters speak to a younger crowd that forms the backbone of the digital economy.

One features him looking at his smartphone, with the slogan "digital first, concerns second".

Another has him dressed in a white shirt and looking down, while the slogan declares that "dissatisfaction is also a virtue" - prompting online memes that added fashion label tags onto the image.

The SPD's Mr Schulz joined in to poke fun at Mr Lindner, saying "he is always looking down in such a funny way on the posters".

"Almost like he is ashamed. That can be somewhat understandable, when one is being photographed in his undershirt."

But Mr Lindner, who bought a Porsche at 19 years old with money he earned through his PR consultancy, is not easily embarrassed.

Heckled during a speech in the North Rhine-Westphalia state parliament, he turned the tables on his SPD opponent who was mocking him about his failed IT business.

"I'm FDP chairman, I'm used to other accusations. But what kind of impression do you give with such heckling to any other youth who is interested in launching a start-up?" Mr Lindner asked.

That impassioned tirade in 2015 won him plaudits, and attracted attention at a time when the party was rebranding itself and making start-up entrepreneurs its target voters.

Fast forward two years and the party is now on the brink of possibly joining the government.

Although Dr Merkel's party is expected to win the polls, she is unlikely to secure an outright majority to govern alone.

The business-friendly FDP, projected to get 8 per cent to 10 per cent of the vote, has traditionally been a good fit for the conservative alliance.

Sueddeutsche, however, said people were asking: "Who else is there? And can this FDP really govern again?"

A poll showed that one in two Germans is unable to name any FDP politician. Among those who could, 45 per cent named Mr Lindner followed by just 6 per cent who named FDP deputy Wolfgang Kubicki.

Dr Timo Lochocki of the German Marshall Fund think-tank said it may be in the FDP's interest to go into opposition as they "need to understand again how the political machinery in Berlin works".

The party cannot afford to blindly sign up to govern, as a repeat of the 2013 disaster could be fatal, he warned.

Mr Lindner is well aware that "we must not disappoint the people" and has stressed he will not team up with Dr Merkel at any price. Only if there is a possibility to achieve real change would he sign off on a deal. "If not, then our role is the opposition," he told party faithful last Sunday.

Mr Lindner has time.

He said in April he planned to stay in politics for "another 30 years".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'Political star turns around fortunes of German party'. Subscribe