Angela Merkel’s conservative party has geared up for the final phase before choosing a new leader, and possibly the next chancellor and the fight has quickened. This week, Wolfgang Schäuble’s public backing of Friedrich Merz, the 63-year old BlackRock Germany chairman, laid bare the rivaling factions in the Christian Democratic Union.
The former finance minister's endorsement confirmed Merz’s strong standing among the CDU’s business-friendly conservatives, who would like to see the ex-floor leader return to the center of power. Back in 2002, Merkel stripped him of his title party speaker. He departed and dedicated himself to a successful business career.
Even before Schäuble's comments, the business wing of the center-right CDU was lining up behind Merz. Aside from his corporate credentials, Merz is famous for his focus on traditions and cultural values, which are dear to the CDU’s conservative followers. Schäuble argued that Merz can draw power from Germany’s political fringes, in particular the right-wing, nationalist Alternative for Germany.
The party's social wing, which puts the "center" into "center-right" is more focused on softer issues such as healthcare, pensions and the elderly. This group supports Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the former Saarland leader handpicked by Merkel as general secretary of the party and heir apparent. The Christian Democrats' worker group, which functions as a counterweight to the labor unions that support the Social Democrats, backs AKK, as Kramp-Karrenbauer is known.
The party fears it could be deeply divided, with opposing camps sniping at one other if the vote is too close on Friday. That could weaken the party further, after it lost support to the AfD and Greens in state elections, and last year’s federal vote.
Those who support Kramp-Karrenbauer stress that she could unite the party. Merz and the third candidate, Jens Spahn, are polarizing, said Christian Haasse, who represents local CDU delegates. “We need someone who can bring people together and hold them together,” he said.
Peter Altmaier, Merkel's former chief of staff and currently economics minister, was quick to announce his support for AKK after Schäuble endorsed Merz. Altmaier, a long-time Merkel ally, said AKK would be the best CDU chair, and one who is able to win moderate voters' backing. "I'm certain that with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, we will have the best chance to unite the CDU and win elections," he told Rheinische Post, a newspaper. He commented, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer would be the most dangerous candidate for the Greens and the Social Democrats. "She can win elections in the political center."
Merz, who is trailing AKK in opinion polls, downplayed the strife. “These aren’t different camps, but voices speaking up for the candidates they support," he told the daily Bild.
Friday's winner will have to unite the CDU and prove that he or she can also lead the country. If the CDU remains Germany's biggest in federal elections expected in 2021, the new CDU chair is also slated to be the next chancellor.
Daniel Delhaes covers the CDU for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Gregor Waschinski covers health and pension policy in Berlin. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Today. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]