German CDU on verge of electing divisive figure to replace Angela Merkel

Millionaire lawyer Friedrich Merz is favourite to take centre-right into federal elections

When Angela Merkel steps down as chancellor this September, she will leave behind a conservative party that has been a practically unchallenged political force in Germany for 16 years and currently leads political polls by a towering 15 percentage points.

And yet the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) may thank her this Saturday by electing as its new leader one of her longest-standing political rivals, a man who represents a return to the pre-Merkel past not just in terms of ideological values but also style of leadership.

Millionaire lawyer Friedrich Merz, who was sacked by Merkel as the leader of the CDU’s parliamentary group in 2002, is the favourite among party supporters to take the centre-right into the federal elections on 28 September 2021 that will decide who succeeds Merkel as Germany’s chancellor.

The SPD have nominated finance minister Olaf Scholz as their candidate; the Greens are expected to put forward one of co-leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock.

Among the wider population, Merz is seen as a divisive figure harking back to the Christian Democrats’ neoliberal era, someone more likely to drive centrist voters loyal to Merkel into the arms of the Greens or centre-left SPD than his CDU rivals Armin Laschet and Norbert Röttgen.

At this Friday and Saturday’s digital party congress, the future leadership of the CDU will be decided by 1,001 delegates from the party’s local, regional, and state associations who have to square ideological nostalgia with realpolitik.

But Merz remains the candidate to beat. “A CDU led by Friedrich Merz will mean a CDU in opposition”, said one member of parliament and Röttgen supporter. “But that is the price a lot of delegates seem willing to pay to get back to the unfiltered CDU of old.”

Laschet, the folksy state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, appeared the obvious continuity candidate after Merkel’s protege Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her resignation as CDU chair in February 2020 after struggling to assert her authority over a party rebellion in the east. But while Laschet enjoys high approval ratings in Germany’s most populous state and the tacit support of the party headquarters, he has struggled to dismiss doubts about his readiness for the national, yet alone international stage.

Alarm bells went off for some at last year’s Munich security conference, when Laschet insisted on speaking in German on an English language panel debate on the future of the EU, cutting a timid figure.

The 59-year-old candidate’s management of the pandemic in North-Rhine Westphalia has exacerbated such concerns, with “lassez-faire Laschet” attracting more criticism for his leadership than have the leaders of states with more severe outbreaks of the disease. “If he can’t assert himself against 15 other German states, how is he going to cope against 26 other countries in the EU?” asked one former supporter.

Röttgen, the other leading candidate, a former environment minister and current chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, started out as the outsider in the three-horse race but managed to manoeuvre himself into second place in the polls with a digitally savvy campaign that tries to balance Merkel’s consensual domestic stance with a more proactive foreign policy agenda.

If Röttgen can gain more than a third of votes in the first round of voting on Saturday, his supporters are hopeful he could rally enough support to clinch the leadership in a run-off.

While Laschet gave press conference after press conference on lockdown restrictions last year, and Röttgen raced from chat show to chat show, Merz’s campaign appeared to have run out of steam. Occasional interventions – an interview in which he appeared to associate homosexuality with paedophilia, an attack on his own party leadership that reminded some of Donald Trump – alienated not just some voters but also members of his own party.

Yet he spent much of 2020 behind the scenes, calling up delegates for informal chats and even ringing his rivals on their birthdays.

To many German conservatives, Merz holds the promise of a clearly identifiable political stance, after two decades under a leader whose pragmatism has seen her cross her party’s old red lines on nuclear power, immigration and Europe-wide debt-sharing. In two TV debates, Merz was often the quickest to respond with a short yes or no answer. He has famously argued that tax returns should be so simple as to fit on a beer mat.

His old-fashioned brand of conservatism has won him admirers not just among seasoned delegates but also younger CDU politicians, such as the party’s 35-year-old chairman in the cosmopolitan city of Hamburg: “In recent years we have seen a political polarisation on the fringes of the political spectrum”, Christoph Ploß told the Guardian. “Under Merz, that polarisation would be relocated to the centre”.

Critics say Merz’s straight-talking image is a mirage. The 65-year-old has campaigned on the promise to make Germany’s economic model more environmentally sustainable and described climate change as a “mega subject” in a recent op-ed for Der Spiegel, but has been more specific on the bans he would avoid than the policies he would introduce.

On Europe, Merz’s position has been “consistently and tactically ambiguous”, said Lucas Guttenberg, deputy director of the Jacques Delors Centre thinktank. “He will rarely take an unequivocal stance on European initiatives like the pandemic recovery fund, but only say that the EU walks a ‘very fine line’ with financial rescue packages.”

“Such comments are designed as a nod to the considerable number of Christian Democrats who have grown distrustful of other member states during the Merkel era”, said Guttenberg. “And as long as the CDU maintains its fear of Germany being cheated by the rest of Europe, any steps towards further integration are only going to take place under extreme pressure”.

Merz’s backers concede that their candidate’s divisive views could drive liberal CDU voters into the arms of a buoyant and centrist German Green party. In turn, they hope, his views on immigration and market liberalisation could win back voters who have drifted off to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland – a presumption that pollsters question.

“There isn’t much the CDU can win back from the fringes of the right”, said Manfred Güllner, director of the forsa Institute for Social Research. “The AfD has risen mainly on the back of votes previously allocated to other small far-right parties and anti-democratic non-voters, who are unlikely to suddenly turn into Christian Democrats. If anything, Merz as CDU leader will increase the chances of Germany being run by a leftwing coalition.”

If Merz was to emerge triumphant in Saturday’s vote, he is likely to also go on to anoint himself as his party’s official candidate for the September federal elections. With Laschet and Röttgen, the situation could be less clear-cut.

There is no constitutional limit on how long a German chancellor can stay in office, but Merkel has repeatedly said she does not want to serve a fifth term, a message she reiterated in her televised New Year’s speech two weeks ago.

State elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate on 14 March will serve as an early indicator of whether one of the three candidate can fill the vacuum of authority created by her looming departure.


Philip Oltermann in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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