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The most prominent inner-party critic of former Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to unite the Christian Democratic Union. The 66-year-old staunch conservative is now reaching out to women and young voters.
Germany's Christian Democrats (CDU) voted to elect Friedrich Merz as the center-right party's new leader at a digital party conference.
Merz garnered the support of 915 delegates out of the 983 who cast their digital ballots — winning the vote with an overwhelming majority of over 94%.
Speaking ahead of the vote, Merz noted that the party has experienced turbulent times over the past three years, but vowed a new start.
"This time now lies behind us," he said, adding that his election as the new party head is a "powerful" signal for the renewal of the CDU.
He'd previously garnered over 60% of support from CDU members in December. Merz's election to the top party post was certain, but observers had been watching closely to see how many delegates would not back him. The overwhelming support from delegates puts him on solid footing as he takes over the reins of the party.
The CDU was founded in 1945 after World War II. Konrad Adenauer was its first chairman and went on to become the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949. Since then, the CDU has led the German government for a total of 52 years.
Now, Friedrich Merz takes on a party that is confined to the opposition for the next three years, having to sit next to the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the Bundestag plenary chamber.
Merz has announced his intention to rebuild the party and vowed to address "all the issues that our party feels are important." He said he would strive to unite the party so that different political ideas, opinions and currents will again find their place in it.
Merz, a commercial lawyer who was born in 1955, hails from a rural area of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. He is a staunch Catholic, and has been married to his wife Charlotte, a judge at a district court, since 1981. They have three grown children.
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.
He first joined Germany's parliament in 1994, and even back then, he and former chancellor Angela Merkel stood for different camps within the conservative party.
Merkel was supported by the younger party members, Merz was distinctly more traditionally conservative. He lost the battle to lead the party's parliamentary group in 2002, gave up his post in the party leadership in 2004 and left parliament in 2009.
He then made a career in business, most recently as the head of the German branch of a major US investment company, BlackRock.
The multimillionaire with a pilot's license has long complained about bureaucratic hurdles for companies because of regulatory requirements, for example, for environmental protection.
When Merkel announced in 2018 that she would step back as party chairwoman, Merz announced his candidacy — but lost to Merkel protégé Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. When she stepped aside following a series of gaffes, Merz took his chance again in early 2021 but had to concede to Armin Laschet, who then went on to lose in Germany's general election later that year.
Both Kramp-Karrenbauer and Laschet were proponents of Angela Merkel's moderate political course, which Merz had always remained critical of.
But since the CDU's soberingly poor performance in the Bundestag election in September 2021, if not before, Merz has changed his tune.
He has joined the Bundestag again as a lawmaker and seems willing to embark on a course of modernization of his party. First, he proposed former Berlin Health Senator Mario Czaja, 46, to become CDU general secretary and 34-year-old Christina Stumpp as deputy general secretary — a post that still needs to be created.
Merz was also keen to ensure that the newly elected members of the CDU's federal executive board would include significantly more women than before.
In recent weeks, Merz has repeatedly stated his clear rejection of any cooperation between his party and the AfD. And he spoke out in favor of changing legislation to allow LGBTQ couples to adopt children. This clearly contradicts the earlier positions of the conservative politician.
The message is clear: Merz wants to win back young voters, many of whom had turned to the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the environmentalist Green Party in the September 2021 general election.
Merz is a staunch European and wants the bloc to be economically, financially and strategically assertive toward China, Russia and the US. Before joining Germany's federal parliament in 1994, he had been a lawmaker in the European Parliament for five years.
And he has strong trans-Atlantic connections. In the past 10 years, nobody from the CDU leadership has been to the US more often than Merz, who says he is impressed by that country's economic liberalism. "We'd get along fine," said Merz in 2020 of then-President Donald Trump.
Update January 22, 2022: This article has been translated from German and has been updated to reflect the most recent developments.
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