German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that her time in politics is about to come to an end. Her likely successor is well-known in Germany and could fundamentally change the course of the country.
Merkel’s announcement came as a shock to both lawmakers and political analysts, because, despite the rough times the chancellor’s center-right party, the CDU (Christian-Democrat Union), has gone through lately, it’s been considered unlikely that Merkel would give any indication about her future before the elections in 2021. Now she’s announced that she’s handing over the chairmanship of her party and won’t run for office again. Speculations began immediately as to who will replace her as party chairman, as he or she will most likely be the next chancellor.
That’s where Friedrich Merz comes in. Internationally, Merz is completely unknown, but he is neither an insignificant figure in German politics nor will he be irrelevant on the global stage. Merz ran against Merkel for party chairman back in 2002, but was routed—as were many other hopefuls—by her ingenious political calculations. Banking on the defeat of her own party against the Social Democrats, Merkel had convinced Merz to support her as minority leader if he ran in the primaries. Merz ended up losing in the primaries and also his place as minority leader, which catapulted Merkel to the most powerful position in the party.
Merz never got over his defeat, and now he’s back for revenge. Merkel isn’t in the same powerful position that she was 16 years ago: Germans think she’s unable to unite the country behind a common immigration policy, and even more importantly, her party has suffered serious consequences as a result of her centrism. While she’s managed to neutralize the threat from the Social Democrats by standing on both the left and the right of every issue, her party is also losing elections—fittingly—to candidates from both the left and the right. This has party leaders fearing for their careers, and has fueled the desire to see her to go.
Merz is best described as a right-wing modernizer. A famous anecdote of him as minority leader goes like this: he was in the halls of parliament when he suddenly started yelling “Fax! Fax! Fax!” “Who should rummage through all these mountains of paper?” he asked, and rolled up his shirt sleeves in front of his staffers. “Why don’t people send e-mails? I got it: we send them all one last fax. And it says: we don’t want any more faxes!” In that way, he seems to be a Macron-like modernizer. Merz has even expressed sympathy for the French president, saying in a recent speech that Paris hasn’t received enough support for its European Union reform plans. Macron is suggesting a more integrated EU, which gives more means and powers to centralized authorities in Brussels, whereas Merkel has been skeptical of more EU federalism and was seen as holding back France’s ambitions. The fact that Merz was out of politics for many years also gives him the Macron-style image of the outsider.
However, Merz is also seen by some as an ardent right-winger. In his books, he argues for the reduction of welfare payments, and is, at least on the surface, opposed to mass immigration. The German broadcast of Russia Today certainly doesn’t seem to be a fan, describing Merz as a “social darwinist and lobbyist of the big capital,” and arguing that his cronies would pour into Berlin if he were to take over. Many in the CDU see Merz as positioned to arrest the current rise of the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany), which is creeping into power in many state parliaments. Whether or not he takes a more hardline position on immigration than Merkel will go a long way towards determining whether that happens.
Germany’s left-wing media is touting his history at law firms and investment groups as proof that his candidacy is problematic, but in the absence of any scandals, they’ve been left basically naming the companies that he’s worked for. Hit pieces are hard to write about Merz, because there’s nothing to hit him on apart from the standard critiques of his political positions. And Germans seem more enthusiastic about him than his potential competitors: 33 percent of them would prefer to see Merz as the new CDU leader, according to a poll for Spiegel magazine, compared to 19 percent for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and just 6.2 percent for Jens Spahn. (Kramp-Karrenbauer is the current party chairwoman and protégé of Angela Merkel, and Spahn is the right-wing minister of health.) A rival poll for the Bild newspaper had a more slender lead for Merz, on 19 percent, ahead of 16 percent for Kramp-Karrenbauer and 8.2 percent for Spahn. Either way, Merz’s popularity could easily convince party leaders to support him as a valid alternative to whoever the Social Democrats nominate.
Nonetheless, Merz’s penchant for EU centralization should raise red flags over his candidacy. If he shifts powers away to Brussels, who governs Germany won’t matter in the first place.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.