British, German Liberals Losing Appeal

In coalition with conservatives, Britain’s and Germany’s liberal parties are trailing in the polls.

The governing coalitions in Germany and the United Kingdom are under pressure as their junior partners have failed to deliver on key election promises. Both liberal parties are currently trailing in the polls as voters flee the center.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own Christian Democrats lost seats in the upper house of parliament last May in the wake of the Greek bailout effort. German voters have been skeptical of having to come to Europe’s rescue time and again and many are longing for a return of the Deutsche Mark.

The junior Free Democratic Party (FDP) has borne the brunt of voter dissatisfaction however. A liberal free-market party, the FDP pledged to lower tax rates ahead of federal elections last year. The liberals won nearly 15 percent of the vote in 2009. Forced to cut public spending, they have been unable to deliver on their promise. In recent polls, the party receives but 5 percent of votes, not enough to make the election threshold.

According to the leftist opposition in Germany, the government’s austerity measures as socially imbalanced and some 80 percent of Germans agree. Two thirds of voters are in favor of raising the top income tax rate instead, a measure both the chancellor and the FDP have so far rejected. Conservatives and business leaders are increasingly weary of the coalition meanwhile, predicting its demise as early as this summer.

In Britain, the Liberal Democrats, in coalition with the Conservatives since May last year, have similarly lost part of their appeal, particularly among students and young urban professionals. If elections were held today, the party would receive but 11 percent of votes; half of what they won last year.

As in Germany, the government’s fiscal policies are unpopular with voters on the left. The Liberal Democrats agreed to a raise in the value-added tax from 17.5 to 20 percent and supported an education reform measure which they said to oppose ahead of the elections.

In other parts of Europe, liberal parties have performed remarkably well. Small government conservatives were on the rise in Central Europe last year while in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, broad alliances of liberals, conservatives and populists remain firmly in power.

A new right is emerging across Europe, spearheaded in some countries, as in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Sweden, by traditional liberals and in others, including Germany and the United Kingdom, by conservatives who have moved to the center. Like Swedish Prime Minister John Fredrik Reinfeldt, David Cameron is far from an outspoken antagonist of Britain’s welfare state. These conservatives favor budget cuts and smaller government but do not believe in abolishing welfare provisions altogether.

The British and German liberals could be part of that new right except their base is divided. Leftists have been disillusioned by their support for spending cuts while moderate voters are drawn to the right where they find conservatives who a “tougher on crime” and share their concerns about immigration from Muslim countries and Eastern Europe. There doesn’t seem to be much room for social liberalism in the middle anymore.