The FDP is getting the pension discussion going again with a position paper. Negotiation expert Thorsten Hofmann warns the party against a riotous strategy in the coalition – and has a suggestion as to how the traffic light parties could solve the pension dispute while saving face.

A new paper from the FDP puts, among other things, the traffic light’s pension plans and citizens’ money to the test. The traffic lights are once again facing a test.

How clever is the Liberals’ strategy? Negotiation expert Thorsten Hofmann advises companies, associations and politicians as head of the C4 Center for Negotiation at the Quadriga University Berlin. He classifies the tactics of the FDP.

FOCUS online: The FDP committed itself to the traffic light coalition with the coalition agreement in 2021, but wants to do many points differently today. Under what circumstances does it generally make sense to renegotiate contracts, Mr. Hofmann?

Thorsten Hofmann: Contracts are generally created based on the general conditions that prevail at the time the contract is concluded. If these conditions change significantly, it may be necessary for the actors to decide to renegotiate the contracts. With regard to the coalition agreement, the general conditions have changed significantly, for example due to the war in Ukraine. Accordingly, the FDP sees the need to renegotiate some points.

The FDP’s poll numbers have also changed – they have fallen significantly compared to the federal election. What role does that play when agreements are now being reopened?

Hofmann: Of course the decline in poll numbers has an influence on the FDP’s negotiating position. In political negotiations, action is often taken not only on the basis of what is necessary and pragmatic, but also on the basis of external constraints. In politics, for example, there are elections, some of which are coming up this year. The FDP is in danger of losing this, which is why it now wants to strengthen its positions again. At the same time, there is no room for resonance for their demands if the party loses its supporters.

Why are the talks in this three-party coalition currently so difficult?

Hofmann: The traffic light only works with all three actors. When the FDP talks about a so-called generation-fair budget policy and ties it to pensions, it is an attack on the SPD and its main topic for the election campaign, the so-called respect pension. Here two perspectives come together that are difficult to reconcile.

The coalition has proven in the past that it can come to an agreement – but only after a fairly loud row in public. It would actually be better to have the dispute behind closed doors. But living with these external constraints currently speaks against it for the FDP, because otherwise their own electorate will not see how they are currently striving for their own positions.

To what extent does it currently play a role that the FDP is the smallest coalition partner?

Hofmann: When the coalition is negotiated, the election results still play a major role. This determines who can prevail on how many points and how, for example, the ministries are distributed.

But things are different when you have entered into a coalition. The FDP has the same power as the SPD and the Greens: if one leaves, the coalition collapses. With this leverage, even the smallest coalition partner can block the big picture. Conversely, once you get into bed with a coalition partner, it’s not so easy to push them out.

The FDP does not openly threaten to break the coalition, but regularly blocks and opposes the traffic lights with position papers. But it hasn’t changed much so far. Is the party making itself less credible in the long term with this game?

Hofmann: If you build up a threat like the FDP does, you have to consider the consequences of your own actions and then be able to stick to this line. But if Mr. Lindner stops the pension package and then abandons the blockade the next day, it will damage his credibility in the public eye. It is counterproductive when wooing voters if the FDP regularly throws its position papers into the room and then falls over.

The FDP is caught in a dilemma and is struggling to find out how it can contest the next federal election as successfully as possible. What considerations does the party have to make now?

Hofmann: The FDP must gain something for itself from the budget negotiations, which it can then communicate publicly. By the way, a fundamental issue in political negotiations is who is allowed to take over communication on which points in order to interpret one’s own success in public.

Let’s take the negotiations about the final nuclear phase-out during the energy crisis: The FDP wanted an extension, the Greens didn’t. That’s why “stretch operation” was defined as a new term, a face-saving solution for both sides.

Something similar could possibly happen in the pension dispute between the FDP and SPD. One hears from the Greens, for example, that at least those over 67 who want to can continue to work more easily. You do something for the employees and help the economy at the same time. Both sides could easily sell such a breathing pension or flexi pension. This framing is a classic tool in political negotiations.

Let’s look further into the future: Will it hurt the FDP in future coalition negotiations that it is now labeled as a traffic light rioter?

Hofmann: That depends on who you are negotiating with. There are certainly one or two people in the Union who support the FDP’s current riot-making role because it supports their own positions. Then you see this behavior as a sign of strength.

But if the same three parties were to negotiate with each other again, it would certainly be difficult, because the key players have gotten to know each other not only in terms of content, but also as people. This plays a big role in negotiations. Whether there is then trust for the same government constellation seems difficult with the current actors in the FDP.