“FRIEDRICH THE great” roared one headline. The hype that attended the surprise declaration by Friedrich Merz, a politician-turned-businessman, that he would run for the leadership of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) may have been a trifle overdone. But as Angela Merkel’s long reign as chancellor draws to a close, Mr Merz’s gambit has exposed the party’s thirst for political novelty. Mrs Merkel’s decision on October 29th to vacate the CDU leadership, a position she has held for 18 years, has unleashed passions that some Germans had forgotten they had. “The CDU lives!” gushed a party vice-chairman.
At first blush, the 62-year-old Mr Merz seems a curious agent of renewal. A longtime CDU man from a small town near Dortmund, in Germany’s west, he earned his spurs as a fearsome parliamentarian in the 1990s. But in 2002 he was felled as floor leader of the parliamentary party by Mrs Merkel, whose ambition he had underestimated. He left the Bundestag in 2009 for a lucrative career in law and finance, although he kept one foot in politics, notably as chairman of Atlantic Bridge, a body that fosters links between Europe and America. Over the years, as frustration with Mrs Merkel spread inside the CDU, Mr Merz grew used to batting away questions on his political ambitions.
Yet for many in the party’s conservative base, says Ruprecht Polenz, a former CDU general secretary, he remained a “projection screen”. Where Mrs Merkel was cautious and consensual, he is spiky and combative. Her gestures to the left won votes from Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) but irritated many in her own camp; Mr Merz once claimed Germany’s tax code should be simple enough to fit on a beer mat. His comment, in 2000, that immigrants should adapt to German Leitkultur (leading culture), is fondly recalled by conservatives who have not forgiven Mrs Merkel for letting in over 1m migrants in 2015-16. Some of the 1,001 delegates who will gather in Hamburg to elect Mrs Merkel’s successor next month may even secretly feel that 18 years of being led by a woman is enough.
Yet for all that, Mr Merz is unlikely to present himself as the candidate of rupture. Despite the sense of torpor under Mrs Merkel, it remains a minority view in the CDU that renewal demands a sharp rightward turn. (Jens Spahn, a young rival to Mr Merz who best represents that camp, has already been written off by many commentators.) At a press conference announcing his candidacy, Mr Merz seemed more interested in attacking the fringes of German politics than in bolstering his conservative bona fides.
Mr Merz also raised eyebrows by suggesting that Germany should have provided a more constructive response to the European reforms proposed by Emmanuel Macron, France’s president. That followed his decision to sign an open letter by a group of German dignitaries urging such European reforms as a common army and an unemployment-insurance fund. Some of these ideas may alienate precisely those party members who have supported Mr Merz’s candidacy most vocally.
His CV presents a second potential difficulty, notes one CDU deputy. Unlike Mr Spahn, who has served in the finance and health ministries, or Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the other leading candidate, who has run one of Germany’s states, Mr Merz has no administrative experience to speak of. That counts against him. Few observers believe Mrs Merkel’s stated wish to serve out her term as chancellor until 2021 will be granted should Mr Merz become party leader. If she goes early, the fraying coalition could collapse, leaving Mr Merz scrambling to form a new government or holding an early election.
The three leading candidates, plus a smattering of also-rans, will make their case to the CDU rank-and-file at eight regional gatherings over the next month. Plenty could happen in that time. In a country that retains an instinctive streak of suspicion towards finance, Mr Merz’s moneymaking past could throw up difficulties, for instance. But he is probably more likely to be concerned with how to lead a party that wants continuity while pretending that it doesn’t.