Merkel Rival Wins Leadership Of German Conservatives

Friedrich Merz, a die-hard opponent of Angela Merkel within Germany’s conservative CDU, was elected party chief on Friday, marking a new direction after its disastrous defeat in September’s election.

The veteran right-winger, 66, won 62.1 percent of the vote in a ballot of around 250,000 CDU members, decisively beating more moderate rivals Norbert Roettgen on 25.8 percent and Helge Braun on 12.1 percent.

He will replace Merkel ally Armin Laschet, who led the CDU-CSU bloc to its worst-ever result in the September general election with just 24.1 percent of the vote as Merkel prepared to retire after 16 years in power.

Merz will lead the opposition to the new government under Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, who succeeded Merkel last week with a coalition of ecologist Greens and pro-business Free Democrats.

“I will of course stand for the party in its entirety and deal with all the issues that our party feels are important,” Merz said as the result of the vote was announced in Berlin.

Adapting to being in the opposition “will not happen overnight, especially when we have been in government for so long and so successfully, but we will of course adjust to this role,” he said.

A millionaire and corporate lawyer by trade, Merz lost a power struggle with Merkel in the 2000s but attempted a comeback when she resigned as head of the CDU in 2018.

He had since lost out twice in his quest to become party leader, beaten in both cases by candidates preferring a more centrist course and continuity with the Merkel era.

But it was third time lucky for Merz in a vote that brought in the CDU rank-and-file for the first time in its history, with previous party leaders picked by a much smaller number of senior members.

Almost two-thirds of CDU members voted in the postal ballot, with Merz now set to be officially elected at a congress on January 21 and 22 in Hanover.

Socially conservative and economically liberal, Merz is a veteran with a long career in politics behind him including stints in the European Parliament and the Bundestag.

Friedrich Merz on Friday promised to stand for the CDU party ‘in its entirety’ Photo: AFP / Tobias SCHWARZ

He served as head of the CDU’s parliamentary group from 2000 to 2002, when he was ousted from the post to make way for party leader Merkel.

When running against Laschet for the CDU leadership earlier this year, Merz underlined his plans to move away from Merkel’s style of middle-ground politics.

“The CDU must step out of Angela Merkel’s shadow,” he wrote in a column for Der Spiegel magazine, underlining that “a happy ‘carry on like this’ is just as inappropriate as the vague claim to occupy the centre at all times.”

His hardline positions, including a tough stance on security and migration, play well with the CDU’s more conservative base.

But the married father-of-three’s critics say he is an out-of-touch traditionalist driven only by a thirst for revenge against Merkel.

He was panned on social media earlier this year for an attempt to address his low levels of support among women in the CDU by highlighting his good relationship with his wife and daughter.

“Sure, every heterosexual husband and father is virtually a women’s rights movement in their own right,” one Twitter user wrote.

During his lengthy hiatus from politics, Merz amassed a fortune working as a corporate lawyer and joined the boards of several companies including the controversial investment management firm BlackRock.

But despite admitting to being a millionaire and owning two private jets, he drew ridicule in 2018 after describing himself as “upper middle class”.

Merz is considered pro-European and economically liberal, though he has previously rejected the label of neo-liberalism.

But on migration, Merz was strongly critical of Merkel’s 2015 decision to leave Germany’s borders open to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq and other conflict-torn countries.

He has also expressed a desire to win back CDU voters lost to the far-right AfD.