CDU Leadership Election: Why Friedrich Merz’s victory would polarise the party

By Gaelle Legrand

FRIEDRICH Merz’s likely victory in the CDU leadership race may lead to the polarisation of the party itself, an expert told Redaction Politics.

The 65-year-old father of three, who has been leading in the polls for over a year and is foreseen as the future leader of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union, could antagonise the party’s supporters with his strong conservative outlook.

With the CDU leadership contest opening today, the election of the party leader has high chances to determine the future chancellor, who came from the CDU five times out of eight since the Second World War.

Georgetown University’s Government Department Professor Langenbacher told Redaction Politics: “If the CDU moves to the right as Friedrich Merz wants to do, it could alienate a lot of centrists and lose voters.

“A more right-wing Merz-led party will likely increase polarization by creating a backlash on the left (which has been rather quiescent the last little while). Many of the policies that almost all observers think the country needs, especially after the pandemic, including much more infrastructure spending, will not find support with Merz.”

Born in North Rhine-Westphalia from Roman Catholic parents, Mr Merz studied law and worked as a judge before joining politics.

Elected as an MEP in 1989 and as an MP in 1994, Mr Merz will have a third go at leading the party since he was outlined in 2002 by Angela Merkel, and lost the bid against Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in 2018.

Pr Langenbacher said: “Merz was a rising star in the late Kohl years and was outmaneuvered by Merkel two decades ago, eventually leaving politics to make a fortune with BlackRock.”

His time as a corporate lawyer and his several memberships of supervisory and advisory boards of companies such as Ernst & Young Germany, Cologne Bonn Airport or IVG Immobilien, may drive the party towards a more neoliberal agenda, an experience that could hurt the candidate according to Pr Langenbacher.

Other observers worry about his comments on his reservations about a gay chancellor, linking homosexuality and paedophilia, for which he apologized, his lack of interest in the gender debate and the strong opposition to Merkel’s policies, especially about immigration.

Last December in a televised debate, Mr Merz said that “had it not been for the immigration into our social systems in 2015 and 2016, we’d have 1 million unemployment benefit recipients less in Germany today.”

Pr Langenbacher said: “Friedrich Merz would take the party to the right, presumably to recapture voters who defected to the right-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the later Merkel years.

“Many people disagree that AfD voters can really be ‘won’ back, particularly in eastern Germany where the party is increasingly seen as part of regional identity.

“He also faces a lot of opposition from within the party and is not super popular with the electorate.

“Although [he] says he is not ‘retro’, it seems that his positions have not evolved very much since 1998, on taxation, immigration, multiculturalism, LGBTQ rights, etc. And his demeanor is not very warm and fuzzy.”

A divisive figure compared to Donald Trump by his opponents, Mr Merz has nonetheless repeated his attachment to Atlanticism, which could lead to the increasingly-empowered EU to lose momentum under his leadership, as noted by Pr Langenbacher.

Mr Merz has recently talked in favour of a European army, stating that overcoming the small-scale defence policies of nation states was necessary, but his last record on European measures is more reserved.

In 2020, when the European Union secured a recovery fund to help countries with the pandemic-led economic difficulties, Mr Merz strongly warned against a continent becoming a ‘transfer union’, where richer states such as Germany would subsidize poorer ones.

Pr Langenbacher said: “Sometimes I think that Merz simply wants to make the Merkel era with all of its changes go away. So, perhaps most dramatically the choice is not really about the party tacking left or right, but rather if it will try to go backwards or forwards.”

Results for the CDU leadership election will be formalised on Friday 22 January.

Pr Langenbacher is the author of several books on German politics, including ‘Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany After the 2017 Bundestag Election’ and ‘The German Polity’.

Featured Image: Harald Dettenborn @WikimediaCommons

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