The FDP's feisty Christian Lindner: the king of the kingmakers

Thirty-eight-year-old Christian Lindner will lead the Free Democrats as they rejoin the Bundestag. The FDP could well help form the next government.

Christian Lindner, FDP (picture-alliance/dpa/T. Hase)

The Free Democratic Party (FDP) was aiming for votes with its business-friendly, digitization-focused platform. But among Germany's smaller parties, the FDP is the one most dependent on the charisma of its leader, Christian Lindner.

The party faithful hoped that the energetic and camera-friendly 38-year-old would help them attract enough votes to regain representation in the Bundestag.

The FDP failed to clear that hurdle in 2013 in a humiliating result for a party that enjoyed 64 straight years in the Bundestag and was part of 17 government cabinets.

Read more: What you need to know about Germany's liberals, the FDP

FDP campaign poster 2017

Posed more like a fashion model than a typical politician, Lindner is the face of the FDP's 5 million euro ($5.7 million) poster and media campaign

The FDP's fresh face

Lindner, who has chaired the party since the 2013 debacle, said the Free Democrats had spent four long years in the political wilderness and have emerged stronger for it.

"The entire FDP has changed," Lindner told delegates at a party conference in April, where he was re-elected chairman by 91 percent. 

One of the long-term problems for the laissez-faire liberal FDP has been the perception that it is a one-issue party: tax cuts for more affluent Germans.

Read more: Germany's liberal FDP sets out its comeback plan

To broaden their appeal, Lindner has also added education to the party's economic agenda alongside migration. The FDP leader has promised to invest more in schools and universities and called for more federal influence over education.

The FDP's electoral disaster was precipitated by perceptions of Lindner's predecessors, Guido Westerwelle and Philipp Rösler, as political lightweights. In the 38-year-old, the Free Democrats have both a feistier and more charismatic leader.

Lindner has cultivated an easy-going, but sharp persona. On talk show pannels, he banters with studio audiences almost as frequently as with his political rivals.

Whether Lindner comes across as charismatic or power hungry is up for debate. The FDP leader may have memorized his lines, but he also knows how to deliver them - which sets him apart from his much older political rivals in Germany.

Back in the game

The party's strategy of change - and using Lindner as the face of that change - appears to be working.

The FDP snagged 12.6 percent of the vote in the North Rhine-Westphalia state election - jolting up 4 percentage points and snagging a coalition deal with the Christian Democrats (CDU) to govern Germany's most populous state.

The party made similar gains in Schleswig-Holstein's state election and also landed a coalition deal with the CDU and the Greens.

Christian Lindner and Armin Laschet (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Meissner)

Lindner struck a coalition deal with the CDU's Armin Laschet (R) to govern the populous North Rhine-Westphalia

Recent poll numbers show the FDP easily clearing the 5 percent hurdle to get back into the Bundestag.

"There is a sense of creative optimism in the FDP," Lindner said of his party's potential comeback in July.

Attack dog, not lap dog

What hurt the Free Democrats in the last German national election was the perception that they were lap dogs of their preferred coalition partners, the conservative CDU-CSU under Merkel.

To break from the past, Lindner has attacked conservative policies, including a controversial highway toll championed by the CSU's Alexander Dobrindt.

Read more: What sets Germany's 'liberal' FDP apart

He has also criticized Merkel's decision to open Germany's borders to refugees in 2015 and campaigned for stricter immigration measures.

Lindner directly criticized Merkel on the topic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying that the chancellor had been too conciliatory and that the Turkish candidacy for EU membership should be declared dead.

Lindner hasn't forgotten to go after parties on the left, as well. The FDP leader dismissed Social Democratic (SPD) chairman and chancellor candidate Martin Schulz as an economic neophyte.

He also holds no love for the Green party, saying that their environmental regulations hurt the economy.

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Hot water over Crimea comments

Recently, Lindner's comments about the future of Germany's ties with Russia sparked backlash across the political spectrum.

In a newspaper interview in early August, the FDP head said Germany may have to accept Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine as "a lasting provisional state of affairs."

Read more: What you need to know about Germany's political parties

"We have to get out of a dead-end situation," Lindner told newspapers with the Funke Media Group on August 5. He added that the West should consider loosening sanctions on Russia as incentive for progress in other areas of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Lindner's comments on foreign policy carry particular weight as he could well become Germany's next foreign minister. In past coalitions with the CDU, the post of foreign minister has frequently gone to an FDP politician.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and FDP head Christian Lindner

Playing it close to the chest: Lindner has said he isn't going to discuss coalitions until after the election, despite support for a Merkel-led bloc

Outsider power

In the past, the Free Democrats have often been accused of prioritizing political coalitions over policies.

For months, Linder has sought to portray the Free Democrats as a strong opposition party, not a potential coalition partner.

"We're going into this election without saying anything about coalitions. We're not going to make ourselves into mindless tools of one coalition or another," he said in April. 

Deutschland FDP-Bundesparteitag in Berlin (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Skolimowska)

Lindner has breathed new life into a moribund party

Read more: A guide to Germany's possible coalitions

Liking Lindner

Lindner's performance thus far this year seems to have given the Free Democrats a bounce. The party, which as recently as 2015 was bleeding members, has registered 3,571 new ones thus far in 2017. And the party is appealing to younger people again.

Read more: Race for the Bundestag 2017: How does the German election work?

"I think that the FDP will definitely make it into the Bundestag," said 18-year-old Julius Kalaitzi-Hack from Hessen, one of the FDP's new recruits. "We're already over 5 percent in the polls, and I think that number will only go up as the national election gets closer."

And what does the old guard, traditionally famous for conflicts of interest and personal ambition, and older party members think? Amidst renewed prospects of political success, they're on board with the youth movement.

"I think Mr. Lindner is super," said Elke Dietrich, 52, from North Rhine-Westphalia. "He also comes across very well on television. He's definitely got my vote."

Read: DW's exclusive interview with Christian Lindner

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