Is Merz the saviour of Germany's CDU?
The new leader of Germany's political opposition has made a strong start. Can he keep it up?
This week Ralph Brinkhaus suffered a humiliation that Friedrich Merz knows only too well.
He had to watch as Merz was voted by CDU MdBs to take over from him as their leader in the Bundestag. With his victory over Brinkhaus, (who admitted defeat weeks ago, allowing his opponent to win the vote uncontested) Merz has taken an unrivaled role in the party as CDU chairman and Bundestag faction leader.
Things have come full circle for the 66-year-old Merz, who served as CDU faction leader at the beginning of the century, but reluctantly gave up the role after losing a power battle with Angela Merkel.
That defeat to Merkel in 2002 wasn’t one that Merz took well. Famously prickly, he told a newspaper that his rival was only interested in her own career.
After spending a couple of years as Merkel’s deputy, he disappeared from the front lines of politics before leaving the Bundestag altogether in 2009, when he moved into the private sector and earned himself a small fortune.
A decade later, just as the last memories of the former Fraktionsvorsitzender were beginning to fade, Merz made the most unexpected of comebacks. Or, genauer gesagt, attempted comebacks. When The CDU limped across the line at the Hesse state election in 2018, Merkel was forced to give up the party chairmanship.
The forgotten man threw his hat into the ring. But he lost the vote at the party conference to Merkel loyalist Anngrette Kramp-Karrenbauer.
After Kramp-Karrenbauer failed to step out of Merkel’s shadow, the party was again electing a new leader in early 2021. Merz stood once again.
This time he lost to Merkel loyalist Armin Laschet.
Now, after Laschet’s defeat at the Bundestag election and with Merkel in retirement, the party has swung behind the Merz on his third attempt. Nobody stood against him this time around and he was confirmed by a vote among delegates in January.
What does the CDU have in Friedrich Merz?
Merz is an interesting figure. In many ways the anti-Merkel, he is loud, self aggrandizing and combative. But the early signs are that, like her, he understands the DNA of his party. He knows that above all the CDU likes clear leadership. It is telling that, as soon as Merkel disappeared from the scene, the party that had been so reluctant to crown her rival suddenly threw itself at his feet.
The negative points:
Merz is something of an egomaniac. When things don’t go his way, he tends to see a conspiracy. After the delay of the party congress in 2020, at which a new leader was supposed to be picked, he was convinced that Merkel had used the pandemic as a pretext for denying him the Vorsitz.
He is a self-promoter. Unlike the reserved Merkel, who refused to divulge details of her private life, Merz has in the past told tall stories of his youthful adventures in an attempt to win over the German public. In 2000, he gave an interview to the Tagesspiegel in which recalled evading the clutches of the local police by blasting through town on his motorbike. Classmates remember a rather less exciting young man.
His aggressive style can alienate allies. This led to a headline failure during his previous stint as faction leader when the CDU-led Bundesländer voted for an SPD pension reform in the Bundesrat which Merz had tried to block. That miscalculation was one of the reasons why his first stint as faction leader was seen as a failure.
Merz is a man with ideas and he is not afraid to tell the world exactly what he thinks. Already in the past few weeks he has opened debates on nuclear energy and postponing vaccine mandates in care homes. This makes for a more interesting style of leadership than the guarded styles of Merkel or Olaf Scholz.
He is an accomplished public speaker. Merz’ speeches are often polemical and direct.
Political observers have pointed out that Merz has taken over the CDU at a time of great weakness for his party - which is to his advantage.
“The longing for unity is omnipresent in the CDU/CSU these days,” writes Boris Herrmann in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), adding that the party has been “traumatized” by its election defeat. “Key players are now apparently willing to accept that this unity will be virtually indistinguishable from Friedrich Merz's position for the time being.”
Writing in Die Zeit, Ferdinand Otto also observes how obediently the party has united behind him. On vaccine mandates in the care sector, a law backed by the CDU as recently as December, “Merz made a U-turn and the parliamentary party followed suit. That is quite remarkable.”
"Merz is pushing the pace, and he wants to keep the pace up, too," one CDU insider told Handelsblatt newspaper. The business paper noted approvingly that the new man had already planned an attack on the ECB’s lax monetary policy and was about to travel to Brussels and Paris to build a conservative alliance across Europe’s three most important cities.
So far, this flurry of activity is paying off. Across all the pollsters the SPD have fallen behind the CDU in recent weeks. The latest poll published by Forsa on Tuesday puts them on 27% with the SPD back on 23%.
At the same time, analysts warn that Merz needs to learn from past mistakes if he is to enjoy long-term success. He needs to learn humility and to stop underestimating his opponents, one article in Der Spiegel stated.
Merz’ authority over the CDU will only last as long as lawmakers believe he is the man to bring them back to power, the SZ’s Herrmann points out:
“Merz is now the party establishment which he once complained so loudly about. History, and not just that of the CDU, teaches us that supposed saviours who fail to deliver fall the hardest.”
As an aside reading Noah Smiths substack piece on the Ukraine I noticed this little tibbit.
If the U.S. did win anything, it was in prodding Germany to take the Russian threat more seriously. Germany now realizes that it really might have to honor its NATO defense commitments, that it needs to rely less on Russian gas, and that in general it needs to take a harder line against Putin. That was a needed realization, and could eventually help the U.S. maintain stability in Europe while it turns its attention to Asia.