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A trip to Kyiv and German party politics

May 2, 2022

German opposition leader Friedrich Merz has traveled to Ukraine's capital — a trip Chancellor Olaf Scholz so far has no plans to make. The Social Democrats see Merz's move as a PR stunt ahead of crucial state elections.

Friedrich Merz
Friedrich Merz is the chairman of Germany's largest opposition party, the center-right CDUImage: Oliver Berg/dpa/picture alliance

Friedrich Merz, the head of the conservative opposition, seems to be trying to one-up the German chancellor. The leader of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), both as a party and in parliament, held a fiery speech last week during the Bundestag's vote on sending heavy weapons to Ukraine. With Olaf Scholz away on a state visit to Japan, it was an opportune moment to grab the spotlight.

Merz described Scholz as insecure, weak, hesitant and timid. He warned Scholz against an "appeasement policy" toward Russia — referring to political, material or territorial concessions to an aggressive power in hopes of avoiding conflict. Merz's CDU has been lashing out at the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) for weeks over their historically friendly attitude toward Russia.

The CDU has been in power in Germany for most of the time since World War II, including for almost 16 years under Chancellor Angela Merkel, who protected Germany's economic ties with Russia. Much of Merkel's time was in coalition with the SPD. Since her retirement and her party's loss in the September election, the conservatives have been trying to develop a new strategy. A party paper published in Cologne this week hones in on security, a cause the CDU is known for championing.

"The chancellor answered all the questions no one asked, and he has not answered a single one of the questions we asked him," Merz said, referring to Scholz's appearance in parliament ahead of the Easter break.

Merz, who has a reputation for hard-hitting rhetoric in parliament, has been keen to point out that Scholz's hesitancy has drawn criticism even from within his own ranks. While Scholz has not indicated any intention to travel to Kyiv, three senior members from his ruling coalition went to western Ukraine just before Easter.

German state elections coming up

Merz's announcement to visit Kyiv ruffled government feathers in the SPD headquarters in Berlin on Monday. It's common for major party leaders to travel abroad and hold high-level talks, but some see the timing as more than a coincidence with upcoming state elections, which are considered a bellwether for parties at the national level.

The northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein will go to the polls on Sunday. Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, will do the same a week later. The CDU heads the government in both states and defending their power would strengthen, or at least stabilize, the CDU and Merz, who took over as party head in January after two failed attempts.

At the same time, CDU victories at the state level would be seen as a blow to the SPD-led federal government in Berlin — and Olaf Scholz himself.

Infographic showing declining support in DeutschlandTrend poll on Olaf Scholz
Chancellor Olaf Scholz has lost support in opinion polls

"Friedrich Merz's trip," Julia Klöckner, the CDU party treasurer, said in a tweet, puts a "magnifying glass on what Chancellor Scholz is doing/not doing."

Merz arrived in Kyiv on Tuesday after an overnight train journey to meet with several leading politicians there.

The Federal Criminal Police Office, which is responsible for protecting German officials, declined to accompany Merz, claiming they would need more time to prepare.

When asked for a reaction to the travel plans of the German opposition leader, Vladimir Klitschko, the younger brother of Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, told German public broadcaster Phoenix that visiting Kyiv is an appreciated show of support for Ukraine. But, he warned, it isn't without risk, as Russian missiles can hit at any time.

This article was originally written in German.

It was updated on May 3, to reflect Merz's arrival in Ukraine.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C