Imagine the archenemy you outmaneuvered a lifetime ago suddenly appeared from the shadows, reincarnated as your successor.
Welcome to Angela Merkel’s new nightmare.
The emergence of Friedrich Merz, a one-time Christian Democrat stalwart who led the party in opposition as head of its parliamentary group until Merkel pushed him out in 2002, has turned the party’s succession race on its head. A gifted orator who coined the phrase Leitkultur (dominant culture) long before such ideas were fashionable, Merz has ignited the fantasies of CDU conservatives itching to get back to their roots. With Merz in the running, Germany’s biggest party faces more than just a choice over who will lead the party; his candidacy will force the CDU to take a seminal decision over what it wants to be once Merkel’s gone.
The big question for party delegates who will elect their new leader next month: Can the CDU go back to the future?
Unlike Merkel protégé Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU secretary-general who is the other leading candidate, Merz, 62, would represent a clean break with the liberal course Merkel has taken since she became chancellor in 2005.
By winning elections and thus strengthening the CDU’s hold on power in Germany, Merkel managed to keep her critics in check. Nonetheless, the lingering discontent among conservatives in the party over her moves to abandon long-held CDU positions on conscription, dual citizenship, gay marriage and other standbys never dissipated.
The quickness with which powerful forces moved to show Merkel the door once the tide turned suggests that while support for her in the CDU may have been broad, it wasn’t as deep as one might have expected. Many of those critics link the sudden rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) to Merkel’s liberal tendencies and are convinced the far-right party could have been stopped in its tracks had Merkel stayed true to the CDU’s roots.
For many CDU old-timers, Merkel — “Kohl’s girl” from the east, as she was once called — was always an anomaly, someone who ended up running the party almost by accident after a campaign-spending scandal gutted the CDU’s leadership ranks at the turn of the century. Merkel always knew she had enemies, which is why she was ruthless in burying anyone who challenged her in what became known (metaphorically, of course) as the “graveyard behind the chancellory.”
Merkel’s refusal to countenance internal challengers or even groom a successor (she only put Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is 56, into her position earlier this year), is a big reason for her longevity. Now that one of her victims has risen from the dead, it also looks short-sighted.
In recent years, the only conservatives with a real voice in the party were those who owed Merkel nothing — figures like Jens Spahn, who was named health minister earlier this year. A directly elected MP, Spahn elbowed his way into the CDU’s executive committee a few years ago against Merkel’s own candidate. She grudgingly agreed to give him a Cabinet post under pressure from the party’s conservative wing.
Conservatives in the party have even higher hopes for Spahn, who is 38, and he has also joined the leadership race.
Yet the consensus is that Spahn is “too young and radical,” as one commentator put it. Some observers also believe that Spahn’s homosexuality — he married his longtime partner after gay marriage was legalized last year — counts against him among traditionalists.
Merz, in contrast, represents a unique opportunity in the eyes of his supporters to restore the conservative order. If all goes well, he could even become Germany’s next chancellor.
Groomed by Wolfgang Schäuble, the CDU’s éminence grise whom he served as a deputy in the 1990s, Merz checks all the boxes for anyone frustrated by Merkel’s leadership.
A west German Catholic (just like party greats Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer), Merz is in many ways the personification of the old CDU. He has the support of Schäuble, who has helped orchestrate his candidacy.
Although Schäuble has been loyal to Merkel, he thinks she’s gone to far in some respects and has remained close to Merz over the years.
A fiscal conservative, Merz became a household name in the early 2000s by proposing a reform to the Germany’s tax code so that returns would fit on a Bierdeckel, the cardboard coasters used in German pubs. The key factor in advancing his career, however, wasn’t such gimmickry, but his quick mind. Merz was one the few politicians of his generation — perhaps the only one — who could match Merkel’s intellect, which may be the reason they never got along.
But unlike Merkel, a product of the east who never shook her reputation as an outsider in the predominantly west German party, Merz represented the establishment. He even joined the so-called Andean Pact, a once-secret, all-male CDU society that was formed in 1979 during a trip by the party’s youth wing to Caracas. Members, who include European Commissioner Günther Oettinger and other senior officials, pledged to help further one another’s careers — a strategy that worked remarkably well until Merkel came along.
While Merkel’s planned departure would seem to present the ideal opportunity for the return of the CDU’s prodigal son, not everyone in the party is awed by Merz’s towering presence (at nearly 2 meters, he would be one of Germany’s tallest politicians).
Even as Merz’s boosters celebrate his CDU bona fides, his detractors argue that far from being an asset, his history is a big problem. Centrist forces in the CDU loyal to Merkel don’t want to turn back the clock. Germany, they argue, has moved on.
In their view, the party, already as low as 24 percent in the polls, would risk marginalization if it were to veer right, especially at a time when the Green party is increasingly encroaching into the center.
That said, it’s still not clear how Merz defines his brand of conservatism.
Last month, for example, he signed an appeal in Handelsblatt, the business daily, for European nations to “to take big, bold steps” on integration, adding that it was essential that members embrace “sharing sovereignty.”
Such rhetoric may go down well with Greens, but it’s just the sort of talk that sends CDU conservatives still traumatized by the Greek crisis into a fit.
Making Merz the CDU’s next leader would also present more immediate risks. Since he left the CDU’s leadership ranks, Merz has enjoyed a lucrative career as a corporate lawyer, working for a number of banks and financial firms, including BlackRock, the world’s largest investment group. In many places that experience might count as an asset, but in Germany, a country that despite its wealth regards capitalism with suspicion, it could be a big problem.
For example, it might provide the Social Democrats (SPD), who are already bruised after the first six months of the latest grand coalition, with a convenient excuse to jump ship, triggering new elections.
Even if the SPD agreed to stick it out in the coalition, it’s hard to see how Merz could work effectively with Merkel, who has signalled she would like to remain chancellor until the end of her term in 2021.
The animosity between the two runs deep. Merz opposed Merkel as party leader from the outset, raising questions at the time about whether a woman was up for the job.
She proved him wrong, first by taking over the party leadership and then by pushing him out as head of the conservative bloc’s parliamentary group, a position she took for herself. After a stint as her deputy, Merz, who accused Merkel of scheming against him, stepped down. A year later, the CDU won the general election and Merkel was chancellor. Instead of making peace and bringing Merz back into the fold, Merkel left him in exile.
If Merz has his way, he’ll soon return the favor.