Friedrich Merz’s bid to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel as chair of her Christian Democratic Union received its biggest boost yet as Wolfgang Schäuble, the former finance minister, endorsed him two days ahead of the party convention.
“It would be best for the country if Friedrich Merz got a majority,” said Schäuble in an interview with daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Wednesday. The comments are a setback for Merkel, who is widely believed to support Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a moderate like her whom she anointed as her successor earlier this year.
On Friday, 1,001 CDU delegates are due to cast their ballots at the party convention in Hamburg. Merz, a former Merkel rival who left politics a decade ago, and Kramp-Karrenbauer, also known as AKK, are running neck-and-neck.
The patriarch speaketh
Although polls show AKK is more popular than Merz among the party base and broader German public, Merz is believed to enjoy wider support from CDU party delegates. Many party officials wish for a return to the CDU’s conservative roots after years of Merkel's centrism.
“We need the CDU to have a more clear-cut profile, we need to get on well with the CSU,” Schäuble wrote, referring to the rocky relationship between Merkel’s CDU and her Bavarian ally, the CSU, which is also markedly more right-wing. Months of conflict between the two “sister parties” have damaged both, and prompted Merkel to step down as CDU boss in October after of a series of election setbacks. She has led the party for 18 years.
“Friedrich Merz is a man who sends clear signals with clear concepts, who has the courage to not just wait for the end of a discussion, but to shape it instead,” Schäuble added in a thinly veiled jab at Merkel’s pragmatic brand of politics, which many of her critics have mocked as indecisive and muddled. He also said Merz’s conservative stance would “weaken the political extremes,” referring to the far-right party Alternative for Germany, to which many conservative voters have defected under Merkel.
Such a ringing endorsement from Schäuble just two days ahead of the convention is certain to improve Merz’s prospects. Schäuble was Merkel’s finance minister during the euro crisis and is now the president of the Bundestag, the lower chamber of parliament. At 76, the veteran politician is a veritable patriarch of the party.
Intrigues and backstabbing
Many in Germany see Merz’s bid to succeed Merkel as a quest for personal revenge. Merz was one of the country’s most senior figures, the head of the CDU’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag until Merkel ousted him in 2002. He left politics in 2009 and went on to become a senior executive with asset management giant BlackRock, amassing a fortune in the process.
And Schäuble’s endorsement of Merz may have a similar motive. The men are good friends — and Schäuble also fell victim to Merkel’s intrigues as she pursued power two decades ago. In 1999, in a column in the same daily, she turned against Schäuble, who until then had been among her political mentors.
In the past months, Schäuble quietly engineered Merz’s political comeback. The nearly-forgotten former politician surprised Germany when he came forward six weeks ago as a candidate to succeed Merkel as CDU chair within minutes of the chancellor’s announcement that the post was up for grabs. It is thought that Merkel got wind of a plan to oust her and chose to step down rather than being pushed out.
Pundits say if Merz becomes the CDU’s next chairman, he would likely bring about her downfall before her fourth term is due to end in 2021.
Schäuble, however, took pains to underline that this was not his aim. In the interview, he noted that the current government was elected for another three years. And speaking to another newspaper, he said, “I made the decision to be loyal to Angela Merkel. And Friedrich Merz will too,” he told newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.
But few believe that Merz winning the party chair would be good news for Merkel. If he becomes chairman of the party, he is widely expected to further weaken the chancellor’s grip on power. Merkel’s best, and last hope is for Kramp-Karrenbauer to prevail.
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Today in Berlin. To reach the author: email@example.com