Just three months ago, Friedrich Merz was competing against Armin Laschet to become chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany's largest big-tent party. He lost. Again. For the second time in three years, party delegates decided that Friedrich Merz was not the best man to lead Angela Merkel's conservatives.
Now the former head of the German arm of US investor Blackrock is making a big return as part of the Laschet election campaign team.
"For me, Friedrich Merz firmly belongs in the team of the Union for the federal election," Laschet said during a video call with CDU representatives in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg on Tuesday.
"With his economic and financial competence, Merz can help decisively to master the huge challenges facing Germany after the pandemic," Laschet went on to say.
More than a decade after leaving parliament, Merz is still the darling of the CDU's conservative wing. A staunch Catholic, he opposes the liberalization of the CDU under Angela Merkel over the past 20 years.
Merz promotes economic policy renewal and complains about bureaucratic hurdles for companies because of regulatory requirements, like environmental protection. Many in the party agree and still have high hopes for him.
News of Merz' return has been of little surprise in the more conservative of CDU circles. The corporate lawyer is seen as the ticket for the moderate Laschet to win over Germany's eastern states, who feel drawn to strong conservative leaders.
In the recent battle to become candidate for the chancellorship in September, when Angela Merkel leaves office after 16 years in power, the five states that formerly made up East Germany (DDR), rooted for conservative strongman Markus Söder.
They worry that Laschet is too soft and indecisive, says Ursula Münch, director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing, Bavaria.
"The CDU state associations in eastern Germany are generally more conservative than western states.They want a stricter refugee or migration policy, for example," Münch explains.
The CDU in eastern Germany faces stiff competition from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). In the 2017 federal elections, the far-right populists took between 18 and 27% of votes in the five eastern states, while support for the CDU fell.
In the days following Laschet's nomination as CDU/CSU chancellor candidate the eastern CDU state associations pledged their allegiance to him.
But they suggest that with a more conservative personality like Merz at his side, Laschet's chances could vastly improve.
Regional politics, national impact
The last regional vote before Germany's September federal election will be held in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt on June 6.
Sven Schulze, head of the CDU in Saxony-Anhalt, is just one senior CDU politician strongly in favor of Merz accompanying Laschet on the regional election campaign trail.
"For us, one thing is important: we want to appeal to the entire breadth of the CDU and that's why it would be good for us, if Armin Laschet and Friedrich Merz and maybe also Markus Söder get involved in campaigning for the state election," Schulze told DW.
"Saxony-Anhalt's state election is extremely important for the federal election. It's the last election before the federal vote and, in the end, if the CDU wins here, that gives Armin Laschet momentum."
Ahead of Laschet's announcement on Tuesday, Merz, who himself is running for a seat in parliament in September — in his home region in the west of the country — had already announced his intention to help Laschet campaign in the east.
Speaking to German broadcasters RTL and n-tv last week, Merz admitted he was very happy about his popularity in eastern Germany.
"I will certainly make one or two campaign appearances there," he said, adding that he would like to "play a part in ensuring that we are well-governed in this country."
Merz' personal interests
Running alongside Laschet could also open up new job prospects for Merz after September's election.
He's never held a government post and famously lost out in a power struggle with Merkel in 2002, a victory that helped pave her way to the chancellery three years later.
"Of course Merz is hoping that Laschet can become German chancellor and that he'll be given an attractive post in the new cabinet as a 'thank you'," says political scientist Münch.
Regarding a possible ministerial post, Merz said last week that he "wouldn't reject" the idea. Indeed, in January, after failing to become CDU party chairman, Merz suggested that he should immediately take over as economics minister. Merkel, however, brushed his offer aside, saying she had no plans for a Cabinet reshuffle. And Merz has since conceded that his brash move had been a mistake.
Moderates are worried
As Merz sets his sights on a ministerial post, in return for helping to keep the more conservative CDU voters onboard, moderates in the CDU worry that he might also turn voters away.
The father of three has conservative family values. Merz is not a supporter of Angela Merkel's refugee policy, but a strong advocate of NATO and a European military alliance. The multimillionaire and hobby pilot has often made statements that didn't go down well with party moderates:
Last year he blamed Germany's rising welfare costs on the influx of migrants. Most recently, he called for an end to the linguistic debate of ways to create gender-neutral forms in the German language. He was also previously slammed for homophobic comments: He mentioned homosexuals and pedophiles in the same breath, when asked by an interviewer whether he thought Germany could one day have a homosexual chancellor. He later said he "regretted" his comments.
But in the end, says political scientist Münch, there's just one red line that Merz can't cross.
"As long as Merz doesn't somehow give the impression that he's an ally or that he could get too close to far-right AfD, he would still be widely accepted both by CDU party members, as well as the electorate," she said.
Dusting down the CDU
The presence of 65-year-old Merz at the side of 59-year-old Laschet will do little, however, to rejuvenate the CDU's image — especially as the Green party has emerged as its main competitor.
"Right now, Germany, and especially the German media are very enthusiastic about [the Green's chancellor candidate] Annalena Baerbock. She's currently considered a green, young, fresh force," political analyst Münch observes.
The average age of CDU/CSU members, meanwhile, is 60. "The image of the CDU and CSU, is of a party that's a little dusty, a little slow and not as modern as the Greens," Münch says.
The coming months will be a balancing act for the CDU. "To succeed they have to do away with the old image, while also making it clear that they're reliable," says Münch. "Because that's something that's always important to the Germans in the end."
For now, personal ambitions and jockeying for ministerial posts will have to take a back seat while the conservatives' main aim remains: Hold onto the chancellery when Merkel steps down.
While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.