Of the three prospective candidates to take over as Chair of the CDU in the wake of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s (AKK) resignation, Merz, who is on the right of the party and who is seen as a champion of business, was initially viewed as the most likely to succeed her.
The prospect of a leadership race is not new for Merz – Merz was defeated by AKK in December 2018. Then, Merz declared his intention of leading the party’s fightback against right wing populism, and was endorsed by the CDU heavyweight, former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.
According to one political scientist, Merz represents a kind of ‘trauma therapy’ for CDU supporters frustrated by the liberalism of the Merkel era. Many of those conservatives had hoped in 2018 that he would be elected as leader and move the party back to the right. The Spiegel commented that, “ Merz is fulfilling the longing many party members have for the good, old CDU: conservative, pro-business and preferably masculine,” and the Handelsblatt that he is, “the business-friendly, socially conservative antidote to Merkel.” An example of his social conservatism was his argument in 2000 in favour of German ‘leitkultur’, meaning the dominance of German culture over immigrant cultures.
Yet Merz is a controversial character who splits opinion. As a recent article noted, “The party apparatus doesn’t like him, but many grassroots members adore him.” The Spiegel went further: “Some trust him to win back votes from the AfD. For others he is the Lord Voldemort of neo-liberalism.” Writing in the New Statesman, Jeremy Cliffe called Merz, “a cadaverous spectre from the federal republic’s political past,” who “has returned in the twilight of her chancellorship, sculpting the unreconstructed politics of that bygone era into pseudo-populist provocations for the Twitter age.”
Merz has denied that his intention is to shift the party to the right, arguing that the party must won back both liberal and conservative voters, as well as young people. Both rival Armin Laschet and the director of polling company Forsa have pointed out the importance of winning the centre vote: “In order to be able to reach 30 percent or more in the next Bundestag election, it is not enough … (to be) accepted by the remaining members of the CDU. Rather, (the Chancellor candidate) has to convince the former CDU voters who have migrated from the liberal middle of society. “
Formerly a major figure in the CDU parliamentary party, and an arch rival of Merkel’s, Merz was effectively pushed out of his position by Merkel as she sought to reinforce her power within the party after her election as national leader in 2000. In 2002 she took over from him as leader of the party in parliament, a move which led to Merz’s gradual withdrawal from the Bundestag by 2009.
Merz was born in North-Rhine Westphalia in 1955 into a conservative Roman Catholic family. He joined the CDU’s youth wing at the age of 17, and followed his father and grandfather by choosing to study law. He studied in Bonn from 1976 – 1985 and has been a practicing lawyer since 1986. Following his studies, he became a consultant for the Chemical Industry Association in Frankfurt and Bonn, until his entry into political life. He was a member of the European Parliament from 1989 – 1994 and a member of the Bundestag for the constituency of Hochsauerland in North-Rhine Westphalia from 1994 to 2009. In 2000 he became Chairman of the CDU parliamentary group, making him leader of the opposition in parliament. In 2002 Edmund Stoiber, leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party the CSU, and Chancellor candidate in that year’s election lost against Gerhard Schröder, after which Angela Merkel took over as Chairman of the parliamentary group, sidelining him to the position of vice-Chairman.
Although he continued to serve as vice chairman of the parliamentary group and as a member for the party executive until 2004, Merz started taking positions outside parliament in business after 2002, and left the Bundestag in 2009. After criticising Merkel’s grand coalition with the SPD in 2005 – 2009, he retired, commenting that he had made the decision in reaction to the government’s policies.
It is this withdrawal from CDU politics that is seen as his greatest weakness for the upcoming leadership campaign. However he has kept in close touch with a conservative CDU circle in North-Rhine Westphalia.
Since 2009, Merz has worked as a corporate lawyer and consulant or board member for a range of businesses including BlackRock. According to the Financial Times, before his 2018 leadership bid, “just for his work as a board member he is paid €125,000 a year by BlackRock, €75,000 by HSBC Trinkaus, €80,000 by toilet-paper maker Wepa and €14,000 by the Cologne-Bonn airport.”
Although he focused on conservative values such as national identity and law and order in 2018, Merz positioned himself as being more central, saying “The CDU needs to create clarity about its core brand,” and, ”We need to make clear that this party is a great party of the center.” Alongside his social conservatism his position on issues such as Europe lay far from the Euro scepticism of some CDU right-wingers – for example, he has supported a European army and the strengthening of the eurozone.
Merz made some mistakes during the short 2018 campaign. He roused distrust when he claimed to be upper middle class rather than upper class, despite being a plane-owning millionaire. He protested that he could understand ordinary people’s concerns, but wealth of this kind is distrusted by voters in Germany. The Financial Times wrote, “Few Germans have entered politics after a successful career in the private sector and voters are generally sceptical of millionaires seeking public office,“ pointing out that “Ms Merkel herself is typically low-key. She does her own shopping in a small supermarket in central Berlin, takes modest walking holidays and once gave the women’s magazine Bunte her recipe for potato soup.“
There was scepticism about the most notable of Merz‘s business positions, as head of the German branch of the US firm BlackRock, the largest asset management firm in the world which controls €5.56 trillion in assets. He resigned from this position when he launched his leadership bid. In November 2018, police searched BlackRock’s offices as part of a tax evasion investigation (relating to a period before Merz was appointed). Earlier that month, in the run up to the leadership election, two experts had warned against letting Merz take control of government, arguing that BlackRock is the global leader in financial operations that aid the super rich, for example on organising shell companies and dealing in ‘dark pool’ – unregulated – financial markets.
Merz also tangled with populism, and it didn’t go down well. He criticised Merkel’s immigration policies, advocating border controls and criticising what he called the loss of control over Germany’s borders. He argued that these policies could not be allowed if Germany wants to fight the rise of extremist parties. Controversially, he suggested that the article of the German constitution that guarantees asylum to refugees needed to be re-considered. He argued, “Germany is the only country in the world that has an individual right to asylum in its constitution,” and that the country “must be prepared to talk openly about this asylum principle.” Following an outcry, Merz then said that he had not questioned the right to asylum, but that immigration, migration and asylum could only be solved in a European context.
In an interview with the Deutschlandfunk radio station, Merz irritated many party members when he accused his party of having accepted the election success of the right wing populists, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), “with a shrug.“ He followed up with the argument that, ”If you see brown and black shirts in Germany again, the Hitler salute and anti-Semitism in the street and the CDU has no answer, ” then it was his civic responsibility to help his country by standing for the leadership. He attacked the AfD, calling them national socialists with anti-semitic undertones, leading Die Zeit newspaper to criticise him for a “blanket judgement” from the “right wing hardliner or would-be rocker from the Sauerland.” According to the Handelsblatt, the focus that both Merz and his right-wing co-challenger Spahn put on migrations politics only played into the hands of the AfD, by focusing on their agenda.
In the first round of voting in 2018, health minister Jens Spahn, who had refused to step down despite pressure on him not to split the right wing vote, finished with 157 votes and Merz with 392. AKK won 50 fewer votes than she needed for a 500 majority, but beat Merz by 517 to 482 in the second round. The narrowness of the result left the issues about the future direction of the CDU unresolved, issues which are now wide open again. The right wing challenger has been waiting in the wings for his moment; has it now come ?