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The FDP, the Party of Neoliberalism (May 11, 2006)

FDP chairman Guido Westerwelle contributed substantially to the programmatic changes in his party. Under his leadership, the FDP propagated neoliberal policies like no other party in Germany, and this helped it influence the reform discussion. But even the party’s strong election results in 2005 couldn’t disguise the fact neoliberalism has never had a good name in Germany.

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Liberals without the “Neo”

The FDP before its party congress: after seven years in the opposition, it is softening up its reform program. Because pure neoliberalism won’t get the party back in power.

The FDP party congress in Rostock. The mood will be magnificent. Party chief Guido Westerwelle has also just wrested the position of parliamentary faction leader from Wolfgang Gerhardt. And the liberals can look back at satisfying Bundestag election results: 9.8 percent, the largest party in the opposition. But that’s just it: the opposition again. Could it be the FDP’s fault that, once again, it didn’t get enough to govern? That is a tricky question that will probably not be posed in Rostock, although it would be interesting for the FDP to know if neoliberalism is simply no longer capable of securing a majority in Germany.

Rostock is a rather traumatic place for the FDP. This is where Secretary General Werner Hoyer once labeled the liberals “the party of higher earners.” That backfired more spectacularly than anything in recent German political marketing. The recently reunified republic was not yet ready for such brazenly open clientelism. Back then, in 1994, the FDP started a frantic search for the proper role to play. How many major and minor about-faces has it taken since then? Eager to shed each respective image, it kept producing newer and newer ones. The FDP was the functional party to preserve Kohl’s chancellorship; then it transformed itself into a radical program party, became a populist not-to-be-taken-seriously party in its “Project 18”* delusion, and then tried to go back to being a serious force for reform for all. Now it wants to broaden its thematic scope. Ecology is supposed to get more attention.

Only neoliberalism has outlived all the changes. It was ten years ago that the young secretary general Guido Westerwelle introduced his party’s new direction at a programmatic party congress in Karlsruhe. At the time, his assessment was that “the FDP had been a predominantly functional party for far too long.” The FDP no longer had any convictions and needed a program that it could use to structure policy debates once again. Westerwelle saw too much consensus, too much state, too much comfort in German society and in the political system. But the FDP, which had been a pillar of this system for decades, suddenly discovered the radical antidote: individual responsibility, less state, competition, more motivation – it all sounded very liberal. It was time to finally commit to a consistent course once and for all. Radical tax reform, government subsidy cutbacks, strict budget consolidation, no new debt, and the privatization of social welfare became the reform promises for “liberal civil society.” Karlsruhe became the birthplace of neoliberalism.

Westerwelle’s effervescence and ambition encountered a political situation in which the failures of previous years suddenly forced their way into the public consciousness. Unification initially covered up and later intensified the crisis surrounding public budgets and social systems. Even Germany’s qualities as a location for production were suddenly called into question. Westerwelle used the crisis to position his party as the vanguard of a new reform movement. There was no more talk of the decades of responsibility of the “old” FDP; rather, talk focused on the forceful reform élan of the “new” FDP. Westerwelle broke with the use of obscure political rhetoric. The FDP propagated a renunciation of “consensus democracy.” It was a challenge [to others] in terms of both form and content. The secretary general of a party that had refrained from taking any independent political initiative in previous years suddenly announced that he wanted to do “pure FDP politics.” It was this assertive gesture that covered up the conceptual haziness. This project contained a good bit of populism from the very start.

“The zeitgeist corresponds with our program,” said then economics minister Günter Rexroth. Westerwelle did not see that as a verdict. At the end of the Kohl era, the FDP was at once a product and a pioneer of a new liberal reform movement. After having been worn out politically, it dominated the debate on modernizing the country. And then, in 1998, before it really got started … it lost power.

* Reference to the FDP campaign goal to substantially increase the number of votes in the 2002 Bundestag elections, whereby the goal of 18 percent was not meant to be taken literally – eds.

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