Germany's small liberal party eyes big role in Merkel succession

BERLIN (Reuters) - After 16 years of rule under Angela Merkel, a small party that believes in big tax cuts and legalising cannabis wants to play kingmaker in Germany’s next government. They might just pull it off.

Chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) Christian Lindner (centre) and party members Wolfgang Kubicki and Nicola Beer speak to the press during exploratory talks about forming a new coalition government in Berlin, Germany, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

The latest opinion polls indicate that no two parties will command a comfortable majority after September’s national election, offering the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) the chance to make up the numbers and wield outsized influence in the era following Merkel’s exit after four terms as chancellor.

Polling 10-12% now, the business-friendly FDP would likely be the third party to join the conservatives and the ecologist Greens if they cannot muster a majority, or to team up with the Greens and the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD).

Those scenarios would see either conservative Armin Laschet or the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock succeed Merkel as leader of Europe’s largest economy and most populous country.

“Many constellations are conceivable,” FDP leader Christian Lindner told Reuters in an interview. “There is a high probability that we will play a role.”

The FDP, which has contributed to the historical giants of German politics such as late foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, has been in national government before, mostly in coalitions with the conservative CDU/CSU bloc or centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

After Germany’s last election in 2017, the FDP entered talks with the conservatives and Greens on forming a so-called “Jamaica” coalition, named after their respective party colours which match the Caribbean nation’s flag. But Lindner walked out, infuriating the others and forcing a repeat of the conservatives’ awkward “grand coalition” with the SPD.

“Our red lines were broken, nothing was right back then,” Lindner said, recalling that tax relief, strengthened education and the FDP’s idea for a ministry for digitalization were not on the table. “We will be guided by such questions this time too.”

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Despite the 2017 experience, Laschet has stated his clear preference for the FDP as his coalition ally, though they lack the numbers so far. He already governs with the FDP in his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Neither the Greens nor the Social Democrats with their chancellor candidate, current Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, have signalled a preference for the next coalition.

In the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, the SPD and Greens have just renewed their coalition with the FDP, though the region’s FDP chairman said after a March vote that “state politics and federal politics cannot be compared”.

Lindner told Reuters the conservatives are “the closest to us” and that “the CDU is rather undervalued”. Several polls show the Greens overtaking Laschet’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

A sports car fan and reserve officer in the Luftwaffe air force, Lindner has badgered Merkel’s government during the COVID-19 pandemic with questions about whether strict lockdowns against the coronavirus are necessary.

Who would he like to share government with, and at what price?

“We are not ruling out anything in terms of coalition options,” Lindner said. “But the question does not arise at this point in time. We have to make it very clear what our priorities are in terms of content.”

The FDP, which champions individual civil rights, wants to allow the sale of cannabis in licensed shops, ease bureaucratic burdens on business and cut taxes to help shore up German industries hard hit by the pandemic.

The Free Demovrats will convene a congress this weekend to formally adopt their election programme.

“Our goal is for black-green or green-black to fall short of a mandate majority,” Lindner said with reference to the ecologist Greens and the conservative alliance of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

Oskar Niedermayer, political scientist at the Free University of Berlin, said polling gave weight to the FDP’s position: “This is not a flash in the pan anymore,” he said.

Whether the FDP can indeed wield the balance of power after the election “depends on how much change the stability-oriented Germans really want,” said Karl-Rudolf Korte from the NRW School of Governance in Duisburg-Essen.

Editing by Paul Carrel and Mark Heinrich