Opinion: One further lesson from the FDP


A lot of people have focussed on the FDP’s failure to surpass the 5% hurdle to gain representation in the German Bundestag, following elections this weekend. While a quirk, there is another way the FDP could have maintained representation in the German Parliament.

This is the first time since 1949, when the new German constitution came into force that the FDP have not held seats in the German Bundestag. Since 1949, the party has only been out of office in five sessions out of 17, the least of any other party – effectively anchoring German politics to their version of the ‘centre ground’.

The FDP’s failure to get elected is a result of their electoral strategy to only seek votes through the party list system. This is where the 5% hurdle comes in, gain 5% of the party list vote and you are allocated seats proportionally.

However, half of the seats in the Bundestag are allocated through directly elected constituencies (a split similar to that used for Scottish Parliament elections) and the German constitution states that should a party get 3 directly elected seats, the 5% requirement is removed and that party gains not just those directly elected seats but also a proportional allocation.

Another party has exploited this route in the past. In 1994, the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to the former East German ruling party the Socialist Unity Party (which subsequently rebranded to Die Linke (The Left)), gained 4 directly elected MPs through their strength in former East German areas. These 4 seats, combined with their 4.4% in the party list vote saw them returned with 30 seats in total.

Even the Greens, which have long used the campaign slogan ‘Second Vote Green’ managed to gain a directly elected seat in 2009 and 2013. By contrast, the last time the FDP won a directly elected seat was 1990, the first election following German reunification.

The FDP have long based their success on a nationwide appeal to the list vote, as the second best option for both left (SPD) and right (CDU) minded voters. In this election this strategy failed.

What lessons can the Lib Dems learn? One the British electoral system has taught us for several decades – a ruthless approach to targeting. Or to use the current speak ‘building fortresses’.

2015 will be about defending these fortresses, recognising the mistakes of the FDP and ensuring we maintain our areas of strength to propel us forward in future elections. It isn’t a strategy that fits with me comfortably, but it is a strategy with the best ability for success. Without a base of MPs to build on, future elections will be even harder. A challenge the FDP will now face for the next five years.

* Chris Richards was a candidate for the London Assembly in May 2012 and is a Lib Dem activist in London. He blogs at www.chrisrichards.org.uk

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  • Samuel McLaughlin 24th Sep '13 - 11:10am

    “Hmmm, don’t see how a national party getting less than 5% of the vote is meant to top the poll in any fptp constituencies.”

    Oh really? Brighton Pavillion? Respect managed it in 2005.

  • I accept that, in our wretched fptp system, targetting is obligatory for small parties and even moderately big parties. Discussion of the success and failure of the German FDP etc points to the urgent need for reform here, not just oif the House of Lords (and we can’t manage that properly) but also of the House of Commons and local elections in England.

  • Simon Banks 25th Sep '13 - 3:23pm

    Quite apart from the watershed when the FDP chose to go down the “economic liberal” (centre-right) rather than “social liberal” (centre-left) route, the FDP’s marginalisation tells us something about the fate of parties that are in government for the great majority of the time. They not only lose their edge – they get identified with the establishment and the way things are at present. To be in power is an aim we should hold to, but we should realise that if we regularly hold the balance and enter power with whomever we choose to favour, we will be punished. Periods in opposition are healthy.

  • nvelope2003 9th Oct '13 - 3:46pm

    The German FDP did badly partly because there was an alternative for its supporters to vote for – the anti Euro AfD. People who vote for smaller parties often switch to other anti establishment parties like them or in the UK UKIP when they become fashionable. The more left wing voters no doubt would vote Green if it became fashionable to do so. Otherwise the Labour Party has not had much trouble from parties like Socialist Labour, TUSC etc

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