Old German rival returns to haunt Angela Merkel Friedrich Merz speaks during a press conference in Berlin | Hayoung Jeon/EPA
Friedrich Merz speaks during a press conference in Berlin | Hayoung Jeon/EPA
BERLIN â" Imagine the archenemy you outmaneuvered a lifetime ago suddenly appeared from the shadows, reincarnated as your successor.
Welcome to Angela Merkelâs 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 partyâs 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, Germanyâs 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 Merkelâs 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 protÃ©gÃ© 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 CDUâs 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 pos itions on conscription, dual citizenship, gay marriage and other standbys never dissipated.
Centrist forces in the CDU loyal to Merkel donât want to turn back the clock.
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 wasnât as deep as one might have expected. Many of those critics link the sudden rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) to Merkelâs liberal tendencies and are convinced the far-right party could have been stopped in its tracks had Merkel stayed true to the CDUâs roots.
The Merkel anomaly
For many CDU old-timers, Merkel â" âKohlâs girlâ from the east, as she was once called â" was always an anomaly, someone who ended up running the party almost by accident after a campaign-spending scandal gutted the CDUâs 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 âgraveyard behind the chancellory.â
Merkelâs 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 â" figures like Jens Spahn, who was named health minister earlier this year. A directly elected MP, Spahn elbowed his w ay into the CDUâs executive committee a few years ago against Merkelâs own candidate. She grudgingly agreed to give him a Cabinet post under pressure from the partyâs conservative wing.
Jens Spahn, who has challenged Merkel, is another candidate for CDU leadership | Sean Gallup/Getty Images
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 âtoo young and radical,â as one commentator put it. Some observers also believe that Spahnâs homosexuality Ââ" he married his longtime partner after gay marriage was legalized last year â" 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 Germanyâs next chancellor.
Groomed by Wolfgang SchÃ¤uble, the CDUâs Ã©minence grise whom he served as a deputy in the 1990s, Merz checks all the boxes for anyone frustrated by Merkelâs 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 SchÃ¤uble, who has helped orchestrate his candidacy.
Although SchÃ¤uble has been loyal to Merkel, he thinks sheâs 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 Germanyâs 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, wasnât such gimmickry, but his quick mind. Merz was one the few politicians of his generation â" perhaps the only one â" wh o could match Merkelâs 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 partyâs youth wing to Caracas. Members, who include European Commissioner GÃ¼nther Oettinger and other senior officials, pledged to help further one anotherâs careers â" a strategy that worked remarkably well until Merkel came along.
While Merkelâs planned departure would seem to present the ideal opportunity for the return of the CDUâs prodigal son, not everyone in the party is awed by Merzâs towering presence (at nearly 2 meters, he would be one of Germanyâs tallest politicians).
Even as Merzâs 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 donât 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, itâs still not clear how Merz defines his brand of conservatism.
Wolfgang SchÃ¤uble has groomed Merz for conservative leadership and supports his candidacy for party leadership | Pool photo by Michael Kappeler/AFP via Getty Images
Last month, for example, he signed an appeal in Handelsblatt, the business daily, for European nations to âto take big, bold stepsâ on integration, adding that it was essential that members embrace âsharing sovereignty.â
Such rhetoric may go down well with Greens, but itâs just the sort of talk that sends CDU conservatives still traumatized by the Greek crisis into a fit.
Making Merz the CDUâs next leader would also present more immediate risks. Since he left the CDUâs leadership ranks, Merz has enjoyed a lucrative career as a corporate lawyer, working for a number of banks and financial firms, including BlackRock, the worldâs 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, itâs hard to see how Merz could work effectively with Merkel, who has si gnalled 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 blocâs 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, heâll soon return the favor.
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