The conservative MP Friedrich Merz has been elected leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, promising a “new beginning” for a party still reeling from its defeat in last September’s Bundestag election.
Merz was elected with 94.62 per cent of the vote of delegates at a CDU party conference, after promising to form a “powerful opposition” to the Social Democrat chancellor Olaf Scholz and his SPD-green-liberal coalition.
His victory was a foregone conclusion, after he soundly beat two other candidates to win a poll of CDU members in December. He has long enjoyed huge popularity among the CDU’s rank and file, though the party’s senior leadership has always been suspicious of his robust brand of conservative politics.
Merz’s election marks the end of a long period of introspection for a party that is getting to used to being on the opposition benches for the first time in 16 years and only the third time in its history. It garnered only 24.1 per cent in the September election, compared to the SPD’s 25.7.
Speaking to delegates before the vote, Merz launched a broad attack on Scholz, accusing him of a lack of leadership. He said that he had called for mandatory vaccinations but so far failed to present a government bill on the issue to the Bundestag: that he has been silent on inflation, which is at its highest level in 30 years; and that he has yet to travel to Washington and Moscow, despite a crisis on the Russian-Ukrainian border.
“All your predecessors . . . would have shown leadership in a situation like this,” he said. “They would have been in daily contact with their partners.”
Merz rose to prominence in the 1990s, when his reputation as a liberal reformer with a flair for oratory marked him out as a rising star in the CDU. He became leader of the Christian Democrats’ parliamentary group in 2000 but lost the job in a power struggle with Angela Merkel and in 2009 quit the Bundestag to pursue a career in business. From 2016 until 2020 he was chair of BlackRock Germany, a job that made him a multimillionaire.
Saturday’s election was third time lucky for Merz. His last two bids for the CDU leadership ended in narrow defeat — first to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in 2018 and then to Armin Laschet, the former prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, last January. Both were considered moderates committed to Merkel’s centrist, pragmatic course while Merz is a conservative who often complained that the CDU had drifted too far to the left under his old rival.
In his speech on Saturday, Merz said he would seek to improve the morale of his beleaguered party, saying that its electoral defeat contained a “new beginning, a new chance”. He said his three tasks as leader would be to form a strong opposition, win the four critical regional elections to be held in Germany this year and draft a new party programme.
In his speech Merz set out a firmly conservative agenda, saying the CDU would “protect the family” and “stick up for the Bundeswehr and our European and international obligations”, and oppose the creation of an “overpowering European federal state”.
He said the party’s job was not to “run after the spirit of the times”, and identified one of his key priorities as reform of Germany’s social security system.
While acknowledging the need to fight climate change, he took pains to stress his differences with Scholz’s “traffic light” coalition on the issue, and especially on the role of the state in mitigating global warming.
Climate policy “can’t just be implemented through the public finances, high taxes and levies,” he said. “It can only work if we take business with us.”
“We know that the economy isn’t everything, but without a successful, competitive economy we won’t succeed in greening our country or maintaining our welfare system over the long run,” he said.