CDU race to succeed Angela Merkel turns into grudge match

Wolfgang Schäuble has publicly backed Friedrich Merz in what some see as revenge

CDU candidates for the party chair Friedrich Merz, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Jens Spahn in Düsseldorf. Photograph: Thilo Schmuelgen/File Photo/Reuters

CDU candidates for the party chair Friedrich Merz, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Jens Spahn in Düsseldorf. Photograph: Thilo Schmuelgen/File Photo/Reuters

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The race to lead Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union has turned into a political grudge match after ex-finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble urged party delegates to back Friedrich Merz.

The intervention by the grand old man of the CDU in favour of Merz, a 63-year-old lawyer, will carry weight with delegates heading to Hamburg for Friday’s vote.

It also marks an alliance between two men whose political ambitions were thwarted by outgoing CDU leader Angela Merkel.

In 2002 Merkel edged out Merz, whom she perceived as a political threat, from his role as party secretary general and took the position herself.

Two years earlier she attacked ex-leader Helmut Kohl and snatched the CDU party leadership from his successor, Schäuble, after using a newspaper opinion piece to condemn an illegal donation scandal in which both men were involved.

Almost exactly 19 years on, Schäuble – now Bundestag president – chose the same newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, to back the very man Merkel hopes doesn’t take the party leadership.

In a lengthy interview, filled with subtle digs at the incumbent, he praised Merz as a man who “sends clear signals with clear concepts, and who has the courage not just to wait for the end of a discussion but instead shapes it”.

“He is a convinced European, a dependable advocate for the [transatlantic] partnership and someone who prioritises the social market economy,” he said. “For the profile of the CDU it is very important to have someone with such a clear compass at its head. That speaks in favour of Friedrich Merz.”

A CDU veteran with 46 years in the Bundestag, Schäuble is a sought-after man in the party but had, until now, declined to endorse any of the three candidates in the race.

Merkel’s choice

Merkel’s preferred candidate to succeed her is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a 56-year-old promoted to CDU secretary general in February. With 48 per cent support among CDU members, according to a recent poll, she is also the popular choice.

However, the new party leader will not be chosen by regular members but by 1,001 regional delegates – a mixture of MPs and other party officials – in a secret ballot at Friday’s party conference in Hamburg.

On Wednesday a picture circulated in German media of Schäuble and Merz, friends for years, sharing a joke over several glasses of wine. Schäuble told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “I always knew he was a decent guy.”

Friedrich Merz, leadership candidate for the CDU), who has been backed by party heavyweight Wolfgang Schäuble. Photograph: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg
Friedrich Merz, leadership candidate for the CDU), who has been backed by party heavyweight Wolfgang Schäuble. Photograph: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

He has another protege in the race: Jens Spahn, the 38-year-old health minister who previously served under Schäuble in the Bundestag. His candidacy has split the vote and may swing the election if he can be persuaded to pull out.

Opinion is divided in Berlin over whether Schäuble’s 11th-hour intervention would boost, or undermine, Merz’s chances.

Merz, a strong speaker who doesn’t mince his words, Merz withdrew from politics a decade ago and took on several boardroom positions, most recently as German head of investment management fund BlackRock. His return has been greeted euphorically by many party members at a series of eight conferences around the country.

Far-right threat

If elected CDU leader, Merz has promised to boost the party’s conservative-liberal profile and halve support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, something Schäuble insisted he would be in a position to do.

Merz has already secured public support from a series of senior party members. Supporters of Kramp-Karrenbauer, meanwhile, are  spinning the Merz-Schäuble pact as a revenge plot by yesterday’s men who never got over being bettered by a woman.

“I think Schäuble’s influence is overblown ... and this could backfire,” said Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin Free University. “He’s shown the depth of division in the CDU ... and that he still bears a grudge towards Merkel. This was his last chance to get even.”

If Merz wins the CDU leadership, it will fire up speculation on Merkel’s future. She had hoped to stay on until 2021, but her plans could be upended if a rival snatches the party chair, possibly prompting a revolt among her Social Democratic Party coalition partner.

You can read Derek Scally’s profile of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer here. For more on Friedrich Merz, see here

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