Friedrich Merz: The German Centre-Left Parties’ Dream

By Hanna Schlegel

Being German these days means witnessing the end of the Angela Merkel era. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a close ally of Angela Merkel, is the CDU voters’ favourite to succeed the German chancellor as head of the Christian Democrats, according to a new poll published last Friday [23.11.2018]. But the disputed Friedrich Merz would be a way better choice from the view of the German centre-left parties.

Angela Merkel, as a result of her Christian Democratic Union’s poor showing in both federal (2017) and regional (2018, Bavaria and Hesse) elections, announced last October that she would neither run again as party chief in December nor seek re-election as chancellor in 2021. This decision not only further destabilizes German politics, with the threat of Merkel’s grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) collapsing in the coming months; the decision also means she will become less influential on the European stage. For the past 13 years, the ‘Queen of Europe’, as she is fittingly being nicknamed, has dominated European affairs and held Europe together. Her departure will have significant consequences for the Europe as a whole, given the position that Germany, being the EU’s country with the largest economy and population, occupies within the EU. A change of power in Germany might very well affect the EU power structure in general.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the race to succeed her as CDU leader will entail a battle over the party’s direction. Three candidates have already announced their intentions of running for the post: Health minister Jens Spahn, the chancellor’s loudest internal critic; Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a close ally of Merkel; and Friedrich Merz, who is coming back to the political scene after a 10 years break.

Friedrich Merz has been a critic of Angela Merkel for years. He opposed her as party leader from the beginning, at the time raising questions about whether a woman was up for the job. She proved him wrong, became party leader and ousted him as leader of the CDU parliamentary group in 2002.
In the early 2000s, he came under fire for several statements, including one over Berlin’s then mayor who was gay. “As long as he doesn’t get too close to me, I don’t care,” Merz said at the time. Around the same time, he invented a tax system that would have delighted German millionaires by proposing a reform to Germany’s tax codes so that returns would fit on a Bierdeckel (cardboard coasters used in German pubs). He is neoliberal and archconservative in a way that would scare away many Merkel supporters.

In other words, he might just be the perfect candidate from the view of the centre-left parties, meaning SPD, Greens and other left-wing parties: he is a highly disputed candidate with a questionable past. He would thus make a formidable opponent in the race for chancellorship. In Germany, Angela Merkel is well-liked. Friedrich Merz as the conservative candidate might cause her former voters to rethink their choice when they head to the polls. Moreover, though it is not yet entirely clear what political course Merz would pursue as CDU leader, it is likely that he would break with Merkel’s centrist strategy that critics call a “Social Democrats” course. Her liberal tendencies are, in the eyes of many from the CDU’s conservative quarter, the reason for the sudden rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Merz might just be the man to change tack.

Friedrich Merz 2007
Friedrich Merz (2007)

A return to the original CDU led by Merz would open up the possibility for the centre-left parties of positioning themselves clearly and recapturing votes they might have lost due to the blurring lines between the parties. It would create space in the political centre-left that the Greens, SPD and Left Party could occupy. Especially the SPD, having plunged to a historic low both in last-year’s federal as well as in recent regional elections, might be revived facing an enemy like Merz.
Finally, Merz gave up his seat in the Bundestag nearly a decade ago. He became a successful corporate lawyer working for a number of banks and financial firms, including the German subsidiary of the disputed asset management company BlackRock that has invested in basically every big German company. That is a liability in Germany, where capitalism is regarded with suspicion, even though Merz stresses that BlackRock “is not a grasshopper,” as hedge funds in Germany were dubbed in reference to the biblical locust plague.

Would a man who has been seeing to it that politics does not place obstacles in the way of the financial sector be the chancellor to vote for at a time when the next financial crisis is looming? Such question could decide elections.

Of course, Merz could help the CDU to recapture votes lost to the AfD. But even within the CDU there are centrist forces loyal to Merkel who are afraid that Merz is far from being an asset and that his history is a significant problem. In their view, the party, already as low as 24 percent in the polls, would risk becoming even more unpopular, especially given the current mood not only in Germany, mirrored by the rise of the Greens.

What the German political landscape needs is clear front lines, more differences between the parties’ political directions. In this way, the argument held dear by the AfD, that all the parties have the same programme anyway, could be obliterated. Distinctive profiles are needed. And Merz would deliver them.
With Merz as CDU leader and potential candidate for German chancellor, a strong focus would be placed on the societal conflicts within Germany. The centre-left parties have better ideas. A de-blurring of the lines between them and the conservative CDU would make that obvious.

Merkel Schulz 2012
Two symbols of German-European politics in the past decades…

This article was written within the framework of the Eurocompetence I course during the first semester of the Euroculture MA in Groningen.

Featured picture credit: Ben Sutherland (Flickr).

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