Long march The man who would be chancellor: Merz’s delayed political comeback

Ousted from his senior CDU role by Angela Merkel over a decade ago, Friedrich Merz has networked, schemed, and quietly waited for the moment that came this week.
Merz meets Merkel

Friedrich Merz’s long waiting game came to an end on Monday with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s surprise announcement to party leaders that she was stepping down as chair after the disastrous state vote in Hesse.

Someone in the limited circle of the party executive notified Merz, a onetime star of the party who was forced out by Merkel in 2002, and just minutes later the Bild tabloid had a news flash that the former parliamentary floor leader was available to take Merkel’s place.

The announcement came nearly 10 years after Merz left politics for a successful career in business, and 16 years after Merkel, two years into her party chairmanship and three years before her first run for chancellor, drove him from the floor leader job.

Now it emerges that Merz never stopped scheming or hoping for the moment that arrived this week, when Merkel’s downfall would pave the way for his comeback. Through all the ups and downs of Merkel’s tenure, Merz would confer with his backers, analyze the undercurrents in the party, and then wait. And wait. And wait some more.

Since that news flash Monday and Merz’s formal announcement Tuesday, a large contingent from the conservative wing of the party has come forward in support of Merz’s candidacy, eager to take their party back from the moderating and centralizing tendencies of Merkel, the national Mutti who was unbeatable at the zenith of her popularity.

First step: Block Merkel’s choice for party chair

It is the party of law and order instead of friendly selfies with asylum seekers. The party of churchgoers, entrepreneurs, and, above all, the party of men.

The initial goal of these Merz supporters is to block continuation of the Merkel matriarchy. So they'll need to prevent her hand-picked candidate, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, from succeeding her as party chair.

But that is just a first step, because once a Merkel opponent is at the head of the party, it will be virtually impossible for her to continue through to the end of her term in 2021. Merkel had already lost a battle in September, when Ralph Brinkhaus won a surprising victory over her favorite, incumbent Volker Kauder, to become parliamentary floor leader.

Next: Bring Merkel’s chancellorship to an early end

Brinkhaus is also a Merkel critic and she could not hope to get anything done with opponents in top positions both in parliament and the party.

The years of networking and waiting are paying off for Merz, who has become a multimillionaire in a business career that currently has him chairing BlackRock Germany among other board positions. He has not lost any of the luster among party backers who saw him nearly two decades ago as a national leader.

A YouGov poll conducted for Handelsblatt this week found 23 percent of those surveyed favored Merz to succeed Merkel in the party job, compared with 17 percent for Kramp-Karrenbauer and only 7 percent for Health Minister Jens Spahn.

We're not as drab as we look.

“Merz understands the soul of the party,” said a Christian Democratic state cabinet minister. “He is the right choice for the necessary renewal of the party.”

After the years of Merkel muddling through with her short-term compromises and her willingness to temporize and obfuscate to keep opponents off balance, there is a yearning in the party for the clear-cut decisiveness that is Merz’s signature quality.

His economic expertise made him a champion of the party’s business wing and almost cost Merkel her vault into power in 2005 when she became chancellor.

Too rich for his own good?

In the meantime, Merz has gone from being friendly to business to being the very face of the capitalist archenemy abhorred by Germany’s leftwing voters and working class. His fondness for the trappings of a wealthy lifestyle — which includes a vacation house in the spa resort of Tegernsee, a pilot’s license and two private planes, and lots of red wine and cigars — could count against him in a country that is suspicious of wealth and prefers more egalitarian politicians.

But Christian von Stetten, a member of parliament and himself entrepreneur in a family-owned business, sees that as a strength rather than a weakness for a CDU leader. And the feedback he is getting from party chapters in prosperous Baden-Württemberg is crystal clear in its approval of Merz.

For now, Merz is suspending his business activity and if he is elected party chair he will give up his board posts. In addition to the BlackRock post, these include board positions at HSBC Trinkaus & Burkhardt and Deutsche Börse, operator of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, but also at the medium-sized toilet-paper producer Wepa. Taken together, they have given him an understanding for the concerns of business.

One his key concerns, for instance, is Germany’s sluggish progress in digital innovation, which Merz thinks jeopardizes the country’s chances at economic leadership.

Reversing the decline of the CDU

But his biggest worry in recent months has been the decline of the CDU, as it fell below 30 percent support in the polls. Then came the vote in favor Brinkhaus as parliamentary leader against Merkel’s will, and the disastrous votes in Bavaria and Hesse last month, where the poor polls were translated into ballots.

Among his close friends, Merz attributed the party’s decline to a blurring of its core brand identity. It was no longer a guarantee of domestic security and it has lost any connection to the sensitivities of young people in urban areas.

The result in Hesse, where the party was down 11 percentage points from its previous result and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) achieved its goal of getting into all 16 state parliaments, resolved Merz to take action. His quick announcement Monday took even his friends in the party by surprise.

Backed by the eminence grise

An ace in the hole for Merz in his quest is the eminence grise of the party, Wolfgang Schäuble, the longtime finance minister who is now president of parliament. For years, Schäuble was an uneasy ally of Merkel’s, staying at her side to impose his more conservative policies.

Not quite Jules and Jim, but happier times.

But Schäuble has also quietly supported Merz in his clandestine rebellion against Merkel, providing introductions, giving advice. Back in 2005, the two conferred by telephone about what Merkel’s narrow victory meant — voters wanted change but not necessarily with this chancellor.

Those consultations resumed in recent months and in quiet meetings of small groups Schäuble expressed his support for the 62-year old Merz, who he thinks has the stature and intellect to lead the country.

Unlike Kramp-Karrenbauer and Spahn, who are virtually unknown outside Germany, Merz has built up an international network over the years as a member of the European Parliament and chairman of the Atlantik-Brücke, an invite-only organization that fosters German-American ties.

Finding common ground with the US.

Keeping the common touch

In spite of all this global hobnobbing, Merz has not lost his common touch. The owner of Landsberger Hof, an inn in Arnsberg in Merz’s old Ruhr region district, said Merz is very down to earth when he visits there. The owner, Klaus Willmes, who says he doesn’t belong to the CDU, still remembers how Merz interceded for him regarding fees he had to pay to take over the inn from his father in 2005.

Arnsberg deputy mayor Peter Blume also can’t say enough good things about Merz. He is principled, consistent and stands up for what he believes, Blume says. Merz visits the town often, sponsors events, goes to funerals, belongs to the local Rotary Club, and in general takes part in town life.

Merz will need these hometown skills as he lobbies with the various constituencies in the CDU for the leadership position. Labor groups, the CDU's youth wing, local government associations have all let it be known they want to have a say in how the new party leader is chosen.

Even Merz would like to see Merkel have a graceful exit to preserve the reputation of the party, according to his allies. But no one doubts that her premature departure would mark the end of the grand coalition with the Social Democrats. That would mean a new effort to put together a coalition with the Free Democrats and the Greens — or new elections.

Merz’s backers trust that he can quickly win back party members who have defected to the AfD. The question is whether the moderate voters Merkel won over would stick with the CDU under Merz.

These are all questions that may have to be answered more quickly than people realize as the momentum unleashed by Merkel’s decline gathers pace.

Sven Afhüppe, Daniel Delhaes, Jan Hildebrand, Thomas Sigmund and Christian Wermke contributed to this article. Darrell Delamaide, a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global based in Washington, DC, adapted it into English. To contact the author: [email protected].