The devastating loss of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) in Sunday’s state election in Hesse not only marked the endgame for the chancellor but also opened the door for a surprising political comeback by one of her biggest political opponents.
Friedrich Merz, currently chairman of BlackRock Germany, experienced his defining moment in politics in fall 2002 when Angela Merkel sidelined him as parliamentary floor leader of the CDU’s center-right alliance.
Back then, Merkel had been the Christian Democrats’ leader for two years, but she wanted to consolidate her power after her party had lost federal elections to the Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. For months, she mustered a majority among fellow CDU politicians to remove him from his position — and succeeded.
For the talented politician, who had been the CDU’s parliamentary floor leader since 2000 at the instigation of Wolfgang Schäuble, it was the beginning of the end of his political career. In 2005, he decided to become a German-based partner with US law firm Mayer Brown and left the Bundestag for good in 2009.
Merkel’s announcement to resign as CDU party leader, however, may bring the now 62-year old back to the center of power. His name immediately surfaced first as a potential candidate to succeed her as CDU leader. On Tuesday, he officially announced his candidacy for the top job, saying the party needed “a new beginning.”
The news exploded in Berlin like a bomb, because the former politician has been under the radar since 2009 and building a successful career in business, first as a business lawyer, then as chairman of the Atlantik Brücke, a German-American association, and of BlackRock Germany since 2016.
Merz is business-friendly, socially conservative
Merz has remained popular in the party and seems now to offer the CDU a chance to get back to its conservative roots after Merkel has steadily pushed it to the left to monopolize the center of German politics. He is precisely the business-friendly, socially conservative antidote to Merkel, who increasingly is being given the blame for the party’s rapid decline.
With falling numbers in popularity polls and the CDU’s losses in Bavaria two weeks ago and in Hesse, the party needs renewal to stave off the rise of the Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigration party, and the left-leaning Greens. Merz, who has a law degree and worked as a judge in the 1980s, could be the man to bring back the voters lost on the right.
He has his political home in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia and pushed for what he called the German “leitkultur” – that is, the dominance of traditional culture over immigrant influences — already back in 2000. That was long before the current controversy over immigration that has taken its toll on Merkel’s standing and given rise to the AfD. He most famously promoted the notion of a “beer-coaster” tax law — one so simple it could fit on the ubiquitous coasters in pubs.
Moreover, Merz has met regularly with a group around former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who has been voicing his own concerns in private about the direction of the CDU. Schäuble’s base is in Baden-Württemberg which along with NRW, has traditionally wielded the power in the party. “As party leader, Friedrich Merz will bring back the lost pride to the CDU’s members and supporters,” said Christian von Stetten, a Bundestag representative and head of a parliamentary committee which supports business interests.
Merkel choice still in the running
Merz’s re-entry into politics does not bode well for Merkel’s continuing as chancellor. It is virtually impossible, despite her protestations to the contrary, to see how she could work well with Merz if party members should elect him chairman at the party convention in December. Those who know him believe Merz will be seeking the chancellorship. “This woman should never have been allowed to become chancellor,” Merz once said privately, according to news magazine Der Spiegel. “If I have to blame myself of something, then it would be the failure to have understood her character. She is not capable of loyalty.”
Announcing his official candidacy on Tuesday, Merz said the CDU needed renewal with the help of both “experienced and young leaders” and he would work to strengthen the party’s internal coherence and future viability.
However, his position at BlackRock and on other boards, such as at the bank HSBC Trinkaus & Burkhardt, would become an issue if he returned to politics. There is still a chance that Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s choice for her successor, gets the nod as chair after she became CDU secretary-general earlier this year. But her star is very much tied to Ms. Merkel and it is fading along with hers. Other potential candidates for party chair are Health Minister Jens Spahn, a vocal critic of Ms. Merkel, and Armin Laschet, the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous state.
In any case, Merz’s reputation as Merkel’s leading “frenemy” in the party would make his election as party chair a repudiation of her policies and likely spell the end of her tenure as chancellor.
Thomas Sigmund is Berlin bureau chief for Handelsblatt. Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, DC-based editor for Handelsblatt Global, adapted this article into English. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.