The FDP has become the bugbear in Chancellor Scholz's government: Whether it's nuclear power, COVID, public debt or speed limits, the smallest coalition party does not see eye to eye with its center-left partners.Christian Lindner, finance minister and leader of the smallest party in Germany's governing coalition, is facing challenges from within and without his party. Several issues that have become vital to Germany in the past few months have put his neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) at odds with its center-left partners: both Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. Perhaps the most pressing of these questions is energy: Where is Germany is to get its power from now that the country must find alternatives to Russian gas, preferably before the winter? So, Lindner was asked recently by the Bild newspaper, should Germany keep its last nuclear power stations running for longer than the end of this year, when they are due to be shut down? "Germany must not close its mind to a debate that is being held all over the world," Lindner replied, in a thinly-veiled jibe at his coalition partners, who have committed to finding alternatives. After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Germany sped up its nuclear phaseout. The Green Party in particular has been opposed to nuclear energy since the 1980s because of the unsolved problem of nuclear waste. In April, the neoliberal Free Democrats voted in favor of extending the lifetime of nuclear power plants and are thus in line with the conservative opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Being forced to spend Or take public debt: The FDP came into power in December determined to return Germany's national debt to the constitutionally-mandated maximum of 1% of GDP. But the COVID pandemic, and then the sudden need for a military splurge, as well as the influx of Ukrainian refugees — both of course triggered by Russia's war on Ukraine — have made massive spending necessary. The consequences are noticeable in the 2022 federal budget, which has had to be financed with €139 billion ($145 billion) in debt. If you add the €100-billion loan for the Bundeswehr, referred to as a "special fund," the situation looks even more dramatic. Still, Finance Minister Lindner hopes to be able to comply with Germany's debt brake again in 2023. That compliance is "non-negotiable," the FDP leader said. Whether he will be able to keep this promise remains to be seen, however, because the financial consequences of the Ukraine war are almost impossible to calculate. More spending may also become necessary if the COVID pandemic picks up speed again in the fall. Uwe Jun, political scientist at the University of Trier, thinks Lindner always knew that he would be facing such problems. "We know this was never his preferred constellation. A few weeks before the election he was still saying he would prefer a coalition with the CDU." But that doesn't mean the FDP leader regrets his decision. "Regret would be going too far," Jun told DW. "I think Lindner is too much of a political realist for that, and he will have recognized that he has to find his way in this coalition and make the best of it." Freedom to speed, freedom from vaccination Personal freedom is another of the FDP's core policy points. The freedom to drive as fast as your car allows on Germany's autobahns has become an article of faith for the FDP, and the party has vetoed any attempts to impose speed limits — even in the face of analyses saying a speed limit could save energy and help reduce dependence on Russian oil. The same goes for COVID restrictions, which the FDP pushed to lift (against the advice of SPD Health Minister Karl Lauterbach). The idea of mandatory vaccination, a policy supported by both Lauterbach and Scholz, was also scuppered by the lack of support among FDP Bundestag members. And yet the FDP has a serious problem: Large swathes of its voters are moving elsewhere — mainly to the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), for whom the neoliberals had played kingmaker in many a coalition. In the recent state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, the FDP lost significant support, costing it seats in both state governments and forcing the center-right CDU to team up with the Greens instead. In Saarland, the FDP even failed to clear the 5% threshold for representation in parliament. Political scientist Jun thinks Lindner would've expected some election setbacks. "He knew that this coalition was not particularly loved among his voters, because they don't particularly like a lot of the policies of the SPD and Greens, especially when it comes to the strong role of the state," he told DW. "Lindner took that risk, and now he has to find a way of catching that situation." And that is exactly what Lindner is trying to do, argued Jun, by continually emphasizing the FDP's own policies and positions on issues like speed limits and debt brakes. "That's important to him, and he is still a real alternative for a lot of middle-class voters. One shouldn't forget that." Losing voters Manfred Güllner, head of the polling institute Forsa, says the downward trend stems from a mix of content-related and strategic errors. When they joined the government, FDP supporters expected the party to tackle red tape and excessive bureaucracy – something its leaders on the campaign trail had referred to as the state's "regulatory frenzy." To get this done, however, Güllner told the Tagesspiegel daily newspaper that the FDP should have secured the Economy Ministry for itself. This, however, is headed by Green Party Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, currently Germany's most popular government politician. Lindner, by far the FDP's most prominent figure, is only in fourth place. Last year's election campaign focused on presenting Lindner as a young progressive leader promising to modernize a country that had become set in its ways. Even at the time, political adversaries poked fun at Lindner's one-man show, and now he's found himself repeatedly upstaged by the media appearances of the Green duo of Robert Habeck and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Now the FDP is polling at 8% — down from 11.5% in last September's general election. Many in the party remember the disastrous outcome of the 2013 election when the party scored a historically low result and lost representation in the Bundestag. After the defeat, Christian Lindner was elected FDP chairman and led his party back into parliament in 2017, and into the current government in 2021. Now, Lindner and his party will have to fight hard to stay there. This article was originally written in German. While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.
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