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He used to be chancellor Merkel's strongest inner-party critic but now has been voted to head the Christian Democrats. Who is the 66-year-old conservative who has the backing of the rank-and-file?
Friedrich Merz is a corporate lawyer from a rural area of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. He first joined Germany's parliament in 1994 and even back then, he and Angela Merkel stood for different camps within the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Merkel was supported by the younger members of the party; Merz was distinctly more traditionally conservative. Inthe battle to lead the party's parliamentary group in 2002, Merz then had to subordinate himself to the emergent Angela Merkel — and finally, sulking, left the party leadership in 2004 and parliament in 2009. For the next few years, he made a career in business, most recently as the head of the German branch of a major US investment company, BlackRock.
When Merkel announced in 2018 that she would step back as party chairwoman, Merz announced his candidacy — but lost to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. With Kramp-Karrenbauer having stepped aside following a series of gaffes, Merz took his chance again in early 2021 but had to concede to Armin Laschet who then lost in Germany's general election later that year.
Merz sees opportunities for the European Union in global competition only if it is economically, financially and strategically assertive toward China and other Asian countries, as well as Russia and the US. He is a staunch European. Before joining Germany's federal parliament he was a lawmaker in the European Parliament for five years.
And he has strong trans-Atlantic connections. Nobody from the CDU leadership has been to the US in the past decade more often than Merz. The country's economic liberalism both impresses and shapes him. "We'd get along fine," said Merz in 2020 of then-President Donald Trump.
Merz promotes economic policy renewal and complains about bureaucratic hurdles for companies because of regulatory requirements, for example for environmental protection. Many in the party agree and have high hopes for him.
But, at the same time, the Catholic Merz stands for an image of society that in some respects is opposed to the liberalization of the CDU over the past 20 years. In 1997, Merz voted — along with more than 130 conservative lawmakers — against a law change making rape within a marriage a criminal offense. When a left-wing politician brought this up on Twitter in December, Merz attempted legal proceedings to suppress it. And failed.
A brilliant speaker, he sometimes falters when he comes under pressure. He once suggested the possibility of being able to write a tax return "on a beer mat," instead of having to fill out pages of forms. However, he couldn't answer how this would be implemented in practice.
In 2020, the multimillionaire with a pilot's license labeled it a "debate of envy" when opposition politicians proposed a wealth tax to offset the economic shocks caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and place a greater burden on the rich who had become richer during the crisis.
Following the election defeat of the CDU and its allied Bavarian Christian Social Union in September 2021, the youth group within the party, who long used to be Merz's staunchest supporters, began to question whether Merz could still shape the party's future.
Tilman Kuban, leader of the CDU's youth organization said in an interview with broadcasters RTL and ntv in mid-October: "Above all, we need more young and fresh heads in the party leadership. Friedrich Merz is a smart person, who can be in an advisory role and as a supporter." However, it will only work in the future with a "healthy mix" of young and old, Kuban said, adding that "in recent years, we just didn't have that."
When Merz announced his candidacy for party chairman on November 16, he said it would be a team effort.
He proposed former Berlin health senator Mario Czaja, 46, for the future CDU general secretary and suggested 34-year-old Christina Stumpp from Baden-Württemberg for deputy general secretary — a post that still needs to be created.
The signal is clear: Merz wants to win back young voters, many of whom had turned to the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens in September's general election.
Now, Merz is expected to be confirmed as new chairman at a party conference in January.
This article has been translated from German. A first version was first published in October 2021 and has been updated to reflect the latest developments.
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