(Bloomberg) — Angela Merkel’s long-time political adversary is staging a new bid to succeed her as German chancellor — and judging by the way he’s working the phones, Friedrich Merz stands a chance.
The 64-year-old former BlackRock Inc. director has been written off before. Pushed out of the Christian Democrats’ inner circle by Merkel herself nearly two decades ago, he lost a contest for the CDU’s top job in 2018.
But Merz has another shot at a position that could put him at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy. He’s determined not to let it go, according to people familiar with the inner-workings of the campaign. His main rivals are worried enough that they’ll form an alliance Wednesday to try to block him.
If Merz can settle a 20-year grudge to claim the candidacy, it will mean a sharp break from the moderate pragmatism that helped Merkel hold the European Union together. He was narrowly beaten by Merkel’s favored successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, two years ago and a lot has changed since. The pandemic happened, and while Merkel has grown in stature, the political mood is restive and the economic outlook is dire. For Merz, it’s an opening.
“The CDU bears a special responsibility so that we in Germany, but also in Europe, succeed not only in keeping pace with political and economic transformation but can actively shape it,” Merz says on a new website launched this week.
Ahead of a leadership vote at the party’s December convention, there are a number of CDU conservatives itching to roll back Merkel’s legacy with more aggressive help for businesses and a harder line on EU integration.
They see Merz as their champion, and Kramp-Karrenbauer’s surprise resignation earlier this year offers Merz a clear comeback. Europe became the epicenter of the coronavirus, and the focus shifted away from the ins-and-outs of a domestic leadership contest. That gave Merz room to plug away at his campaign to woo on-the-fence moderates, party officials say.
Since Helmut Kohl’s victory in 1982, the CDU has controlled the Chancellery for all but seven years. So whomever the party nominates will start as a strong favorite to lead Germany.
Lined up against him are Armin Laschet and Markus Soeder — the other top contenders to lead the conservative bloc into the 2021 election. They will signal their determination to stop Merz when Soeder, the premier of Bavaria, travels to Berlin to present a biography of Laschet, his counterpart in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Laschet is a pragmatist in Merkel’s mold and the favorite of the party establishment. Soeder is head of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, which means he’s not eligible for the CDU leadership and ordinarily wouldn’t be considered as a candidate for chancellor.
But Soeder’s success in managing the coronavirus pandemic has made him by far the most popular candidate among voters — and Laschet has signaled to party insiders that he would be open to an arrangement with Soeder if elected CDU leader.
Merz, by contrast, is going for broke. He gave up his job as supervisory board chairman of BlackRock’s German unit at the end of March, after the stumbles of Merkel’s former protegee left the job up for grabs.
That gave the former caucus leader plenty of time to plot a viable path to power, and his opponents say his operation is much more professional than when he lost narrowly to Kramp-Karrenbauer in 2018.
With just over two months until the convention, Merz is aiming to charm and cajole every one of the 1,001 delegates who will decide the contest, said people who asked not to be identified discussing internal strategy.
The calls can last as long as an hour and range from chummy inquiries about family news to hard-core pitches on the future direction of their party and their country, they said.
He’s made it clear that if he gets the job, he intends to run for chancellor, too.
Still, while that ambition and a professionally managed campaign may help Merz energize the party base and open up a path to the top, he also constitutes a risk.
Support for the CDU has surged this year because of Merkel’s deft handling of the pandemic, and there are concerns that Merz could prove a turnoff for voters. He could also repel potential coalition partners and might push the Greens into a leftist alliance with the Social Democrats.
Indeed, he showed just how out of touch he is with the views of many modern Germans in a recent interview with Bild newspaper. Asked about whether he could support a gay chancellor, he said sexual orientation isn’t an issue “as long as it doesn’t involve children.”
The unprompted link between homosexuality and pedophilia created an uproar. He apologized on Twitter and pointed to his track record backing the party’s gay and lesbian community.
All the same, Merz embraces his hard edges and is pitching himself as the candidate for change. His website’s slogan is “New Time. New Responsibility.”
“Even if we risk parts of German society disagreeing us, we have to say clearly again, where we want to go with this country,” he said at a party event in Hildesheim Sept. 19.
The contrast with his rival was stark. “We have to tell voters: We don’t choose a break with Angela Merkel,” Laschet went on to say to only polite applause.
Merz, however, was given a standing ovation.
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