Angela Merkel’s favored successor to head her governing party is running into stiff competition in a race that will shape the German chancellor’s legacy.
Her old nemesis Friedrich Merz is now a contender for the Christian Democratic Union’s chairmanship, raising the possibility that for the first time ever the leader of the Europe’s dominant economy will come from the world of finance.
If successful, his would be one of the most remarkable comebacks in German politics. The BlackRock Inc. executive is a social conservative who could pull the party to the right in contrast with CDU general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, dubbed by the German media as a “mini-Merkel.”
The withdrawal of 64-year-old Merkel from the party she’s led since the turn of the century has set off a contest that will determine whether the CDU veers from her centrist path to the right. Should she be replaced by Merz or someone like Health Minister Jens Spahn, a critic of her refugee policy, it would make the last three years of her chancellorship uncomfortable. That’s assuming she serves them out.
“It’s going to be a real showdown,” Josef Janning, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, told Bloomberg Radio.
Given the fragmentation in German politics — with many of the bloc’s traditional voters switching to the Greens or the far-right Alternative for Germany in recent state elections — party leaders are keen not to veer too far from its centrist approach.
“We’re a people’s party,” Ralph Brinkhaus, who defeated Merkel’s candidate to become CDU caucus leader in September, said on Deutschlandfunk radio on Wednesday. “Our party has the duty to pull this country together, and it’s this sense of solidarity that has particularly suffered in recent years. That’s why it’s very, very important that the person that serves as chair is a bridge builder.”
Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, has toed the chancellor’s social liberal line ever since Merkel plucked her from the small state of Saarland after she won a regional election for the CDU. She is popular and has the added bonus of being a female candidate, according Manfred Guellner, director of pollster Forsa.
Merz, 62, is embraced by a male-dominated old guard within the CDU that’s always been hostile to Merkel’s record. A supervisory board chairman of BlackRock’s German asset management unit, the one-time politician was notoriously shoved out of his job as CDU parliamentary caucus chairman by Merkel in 2002.
Merz is close to a circle of power brokers, particularly from industry and finance, who have an affinity for the party’s pre-Merkel profile. He would restore “the pride that has gone missing in recent years,” Christian von Stetten, a pro-business CDU lawmaker and frequent Merkel critic, told Passauer Neue Presse newspaper.
Merz once proposed a “beer coaster” tax plan that would simplify annual returns so they could fit on the drinking mat.
“There’s a lot of sympathy for Merz” in the CDU, said Jan Techau, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. And if Merkel wants a leader who would work with her as chancellor, “Merz would not be it,” Techau said.
He’d also be a target for the left, including some in the Social Democratic Party, Merkel’s coalition partner. Sahra Wagenknecht, parliamentary leader of the opposition Left party, portrayed Merz as beholden to business.
Another Merkel antagonist is Spahn, 38, a cabinet member who has built a following in the CDU with his denunciation of Muslim women wearing full-faced veils and consistent criticism of the chancellor’s migration policy.
In 2016, Spahn supported a motion pushed through by the party’s youth wing rejecting rules easing double citizenship, which Merkel’s government had passed.
Another possible contender is Armin Laschet, the CDU premier of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. He warned his party against focusing on power games at the risk of turning off more voters.
“The CDU shouldn’t begin to circle around itself,” Laschet, whose regional group is the largest at the Dec. 6-8 convention in Hamburg, told reporters on Monday.