The blue and yellow banners of Germany’s embattled liberal Free Democrats (FDP) were all over the centre of the once Communist eastern city of Erfurt this week, but red was the colour that dominated the speech given by the party’s leading candidate in this Sunday’s general election.
Barely 300 people had gathered on a square in the east German city to listen to Rainer Brüderle, a former economics minister and the pro-business, anti-tax party’s front-runner in what will be a make-or-break poll for the party.
Mr Brüderle gave his onlookers a lecture of how Germany, with the liberals in government, was the envy of the rest of Europe. But then he revealed the secret weapon designed to strike fear into those who remembered the Communist era of more than two decades ago: the red threat.
The spectre of a future German government comprising Social Democrats, leftist Greens and worst of all, The Left Party – successors of the former East German Communists – loomed large.
“Sooner or later it will happen – if we don’t watch out. They are in bed with one another,” Mr Brüderle insisted. “They think we are all too stupid to know what to do with our own money. They know better,” he added, with an appeal to vote FDP at all costs this weekend. “A vote for us is a vote for Angela Merkel.”
The speech and its threat of a return to red government were clearly designed as a wake-up call to Erfurt’s voters. But few seemed impressed. “I am not sure that The Left Party will ever be in national government,” said Herbert Goller, a retired businessman, “I think I prefer to vote directly for Merkel than for the liberals,” he told The Independent.
Mr Brüderle’s speech appeared desperate and there is little doubt that it was. The liberals’ disastrous performance in key state elections in Bavaria last weekend has forced the party to begin a last-minute fight for political survival.
Its outcome will determine whether Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative liberal government can stay in office after Sunday’s general election or whether she will be obliged to seek a coalition government with the Social Democrats.
Without the liberals in government, Ms Merkel may find it more difficult to support her conservative ally David Cameron in his bid to reform the European Union and curb the power of Brussels. As partners in government, the Social Democrats could also obstruct Ms Merkel’s strict European austerity policies.
The left-of-centre party has called repeated for more investment in stricken eurozone countries during its election campaign.
Unlike Ms Merkel, who has said repeatedly that she wants Britain to remain in the EU, Frank Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrat tipped to be her next foreign minister in the event of a grand coalition has said he expects the UK to quit.
In Bavaria, the liberals secured a mere 3.3 per cent of the vote – a figure far below the 5 per cent hurdle needed to enter a state or national parliament under Germany’s election rules. To avoid a repeat humiliation this Sunday, the party is now desperately trying to persuade conservative supporters to “loan” tactical votes to the liberals in the general election.
Such an option is possible as the German election system allows voters two votes: one for their constituency candidate and one for the party they wish to support at national level. “Voters can be very clever by supporting a strong conservative candidate locally and casting a second vote for us,” insisted Patrick Döring, the FDP’s general secretary on Monday.
But it is by no means certain that the FDP’s strategy will pay off. Opinion polls published today suggested that in he wake of the Bavaria poll, support for the FDP had dropped so low that Ms Merkel would have only two choices after Sunday’s election: a grand coalition with the Social Democrats or a conservative Green alliance. The environmentalist party has categorically ruled out the latter option.
A majority of German voters appeared to be in favour of a grand coalition with Ms Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats polling 39 per cent of the vote and the Social Democrats 25. Liberal support was down to between 4 and 5 per cent with the Greens and The Left party at 10 and 9 per cent respectively.
Balance of power: The major players
Christian Democratic Union
Leader: Angela Merkel
Current polling: 39 per cent
Social Democratic Party
Leader: Sigmar Gabriel.
Current polling: 25 per cent
Leader: Jürgen Trittin
Current polling: 10 per cent
Leader: Katja Kipping
Current polling: 9 per cent
Free Democratic Party
Leader: Philipp Rösler
Current polling: 5 per cent