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The pro-business Free Democratic Party is about to wield power in Berlin, thanks to the country’s youngest voters—but doesn’t yet know what it wants.
“Things are going to be different now that we’re in power,” politics lecturer Franziska Brandmann told a group of young Free Democratic Party (FDP) members recently in Berlin. The group had assembled to hear the Oxford doctoral student campaign for leadership of the party’s youth wing, Junge Liberale (or “JuLis” for short). The mood among the youngest members of Germany’s liberal party was simultaneously jubilant and defensive. The party’s success among younger voters took Germany by surprise in the country’s recent election. Among first-time voters, the party received 23 percent of the vote, the same share as the Greens. While the Greens were able to carry the vote among people under age 30, the FDP placed a strong second. This result among young voters carried the FDP to one of its strongest electoral positions in 50 years, almost guaranteeing the party a spot in Germany’s next government despite its significant ideological differences from both the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Greens, which are widely expected to join them in a so-called traffic light coalition.
For most of the JuLis who gathered to hear Brandmann speak, governance—at least on the national stage—has been a distant dream. In 2013, the FDP suffered a disastrous year in Germany’s federal elections, falling below the 5 percent threshold needed for entry into the Bundestag for the first time since 1949. Brandmann, who has collected nearly 12 years of political experience with the JuLis by age 27, served as a kind of fresh-faced éminence grise to the JuLis and recounted her experience of the grim mood that followed the disastrous election to the rest of the young liberals. It was more than a disappointing result; it was a wake-up call for a party at risk of becoming irrelevant. While FDP members proudly call themselves liberals, for many anglophone observers, the title “neoliberals” might be less confusing. They’re widely associated with the kinds of privatization, deregulation, and fiscal hawkishness that were widespread throughout the 1990s but fell into disrepute after 2008.
The party was in need of modernization, and it quickly elected a young politician named Christian Lindner to its leadership. Lindner, then 34, first entered the public eye as a high school student, when a public relations firm he founded was successful enough to allow him to buy a Porsche. But his next business venture—a start-up called Moomax, which was funded largely with public money—went bankrupt, costing German tax payers almost $1.6 million.
Lindner’s talent for public relations was put to good use, and in the 2017 elections, the FDP regained lost ground. The party won 10.7 percent of the vote, which put them in a position to enter negotiations with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to form a center-right coalition government. But the FDP and the CDU were unable to reach an agreement, and it was the SPD who took the minority role in Merkel’s last government. Now, Brandmann told her peers, the embittered fun they experienced when the party was far from the halls of power was about to come to an end. They could no longer sit back and criticize the governing coalition’s decisions; they would have to govern themselves.
“The other parties have a functionalist understanding of freedom,” complained Paavo Czwikla, who campaigned to serve under Brandmann as deputy chair of the JuLis. The Greens, for example, expressed a desire to introduce speed limits on the Autobahn. Limiting drivers to a speed of 80 miles per hour would cut greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the number and severity of accidents on German highways, reduce pollution, and limit noise complaints related to traffic in German cities. Recent polling indicates 59 percent of Germans now favor introducing speed limits. But for Czwikla, such arguments overlook a fundamental point: that driving fast constitutes exactly the kind of liberty the government should protect.
Czwikla and Brandmann, despite their ideological alignment, in many ways present a stark contrast. Brandmann was loquacious and often apologized for her precise and detailed answers to the questions posed to her. She made the impression of someone who over-prepares for everything. And while her investment in the FDP’s political ideals is clearly heartfelt, she directed her energy largely to pragmatic questions of governance, election strategy, and party organization. Czwikla, who studies philosophy at the University of Münster, was more sparing with his words, especially regarding personal questions. Only when he could steer the conversation toward larger, more philosophical questions did he grow animated.
Of the two candidates, Brandmann provided far more insight into the FDP’s agenda. If elected, she promised she would make equality of opportunity in the country’s educational system a priority and would push for the country to rewrite its surprisingly regressive laws limiting abortion. Unsurprisingly, the FDP has been able to work closely with the Greens on these issues, along with other questions related to civil liberties from the legalization of marijuana to the legality of physician-assisted suicide. Indeed, cooperation between the two groups has been so effective in coalition discussions that Brandmann warned her colleagues not to assume the alliance would last, citing the risk that the coalition would implode if the two weaker parties in the coalition were consistently united against the third.
But even as Brandmann emphasized the common ground between the FDP and the Greens, Czwikla pointed to the substantial rift between the two groups. “The Grüne Jugend [or ‘Green Youth’] are caught up in a radicalization spiral,” he said, and they would soon be disappointed to see how little influence they actually have on the governing process. Indeed, their radicalism and intransigence had, according to Czwikla, rendered them largely irrelevant to coalition negotiations and made the JuLis “the only serious youth organization” in German politics. Czwikla, in dismissing the Grüne Jugend as unserious, echoed a common set of complaints among German conservatives. The Greens, according to the common line, are a set of pie-in the-sky idealists who can’t be bothered with the hard business of governance. Christoph Meyer, head of the Berlin FDP, exemplified this position when he told Die Welt that his colleagues in the Green Party were guilty of “an almost intolerable moral arrogance.”
“Morality,” wrote journalist Ulf Poschardt in Die Welt, “is the existential core of the Greens, their political goals are just diversions.”
In some sense, the FDP’s rejection of moral reasoning in policymaking would seem to constitute a radical reversal for conservative Germany. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, after all, always grounded its politics in explicit moral claims. But it’s worth asking whether the FDP has really managed to banish morality so thoroughly from its politics. But it’s not entirely easy to see what Die Liberalen (or “The Liberals”) might mean with their complaints of excessive Green morality given they largely agree with the Greens on issues dealing with public morality and religion. If keeping morality out of politics doesn’t mean limiting the government’s ability to impose religiously based restrictions on public behavior, what exactly does it mean?
It’s hard to overstate the dismay caused among Germany’s commentariat by the FDP’s success with young voters. Journalist Markus Feldenkirchen, writing in Der Spiegel, is typical of the shock expressed by many Germans at the FDP’s success among young voters. “The milieu that voted for the FDP used to be clearly demarcated. Generally, one owned a hotel, or at least a pharmacy. One was either the spouse of a dentist or a dentist oneself. The party’s real slogan was, ‘if we all think of ourselves, we’ll have thought of everyone.’” For some commentators, the FDP’s success is evidence that kids aren’t quite as idealistic as the world thought. This view comes from within the FDP as well as from outside critics. Marco Buschmann, leader of the FDP’s parliamentary faction, tweeted: “Lots of people like to talk about diversity, but want to use simple labels. Young people voted for the FDP and the Greens. Every generation is diverse. This one is Fridays for Future AND Trade Republic. Ecological AND economic sustainability.”
But explanations based on the FDP’s financial positions seem hard to countenance. First of all, because their economic program has been widely discredited—most recently by economist Joseph Stiglitz and history professor Adam Tooze, who, writing in Die Zeit, complained that FDP’s economic policies were not only “a series of conservative clichés” but, worse yet, “the clichés of a bygone era: the 1990s.” The kinds of debt hawkishness and deregulation favored by the party are now believed by many economists to have had a disastrous effect on both German and global prosperity as well as on social justice and the climate. It’s hard to understand—in the face of what would seem to be mounting evidence to discredit the kinds of economic programs the FDP favors—why the youngest voters would suddenly change tack with regard to the party.
Part of the credit is nearly always accorded to the party’s youth outreach programs and their successful social media strategies. And while it seems clear that such efforts played an important role in the FDP’s electoral success, it’s also hard to imagine that political maneuvering alone would be enough to help launch the party past the Greens, who enjoyed near-constant media attention in connection to the climate crisis. A series of other, oft-cited examples seem similarly unsatisfying. Take the FDP’s emphasis on digitalization. Under the auspices of digitalization, the FDP promised everything from improved broadband and cellular coverage to simplified bureaucracy. While both bureaucratic overload and internet speeds are real problems in Germany, it’s hard to understand why young people would particularly entrust these issues to the FDP or see why they are so much more important to young people today than they were in previous campaigns where the FDP tried to stake claim to Silicon Valley’s mantle.
Rather than concrete policy proposals, it seems to be the FDP’s more diffuse ideological positions that helped it to make such great strides forward among the young. At Brandmann’s campaign event, the party distributed stickers reading, in the party’s trademark electric pink and yellow, “Freiheit ist Queen” (“Freedom is Queen”) and “Demokratie ist King” (“Democracy is King”). The night’s conversation also turned time and again to the importance of freedom, and although there was little discussion of the pandemic and its particularly harsh effects on younger people, it was hard to escape the feeling that every mention of freedom was a referendum on the very real limitations on the right to assembly and expression Germans experienced as a result of the measures taken to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Of all of the possible explanations for the FDP’s electoral success, frustration with limitations on German freedom during the pandemic is the only issue that seems capable of explaining its electoral appeal.
In many ways, those stickers encapsulated the FDP’s politics. Their electric colors and bold design, along with their half-English slogans, clearly indicate a concerted effort to scream that the party is young and vibrant. Finally, the slogans present no new ideas for guaranteeing Germans’ freedom and democracy despite the challenges of climate change, a global pandemic, rising income inequality, and a worldwide slide toward far-right extremism. Instead, they rehash liberal victories that took place more than a century ago. The stickers seem to suggest that young Germans looking for a party to depose Kaiser Wilhelm II would be well-served by voting for the FDP.
Whether the young voters who ushered the FDP into power will come to regret their choice is an open question. All of the party’s appeals to philosophical traditions and grand concepts have left more open questions than concrete approaches to governing. And with COVID-19 cases in Germany skyrocketing as the FDP is set to enter power as part of a new coalition government, the party’s many paeans to freedom and competition will soon have to give way to concrete proposals for governance. Czwikla may be right that the Greens have a functionalist approach to freedom, and that willingness to limit Germans’ ability to gather, eat, and drive as they wish might well have driven much of the FDP’s electoral success among younger voters. Currently, though, the question regarding the liberals’ approach to politics is whether it can work at all.