Friedrich Merz elected CDU leader in final break with Merkel era

Millionaire businessman chokes back tears after achieving political goal at third attempt

Friedrich Merz’s victory comes two decades after his rapid rise through the ranks to become parliamentary party leader. Photograph:  Hannibal Hanschke/ AFP via Getty

Friedrich Merz’s victory comes two decades after his rapid rise through the ranks to become parliamentary party leader. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/ AFP via Getty

 

Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has slammed the door on the Angela Merkel era with a huge vote to elect her arch-rival, Friedrich Merz, as new party chairman.

Proving third time is a charm, the millionaire businessman attracted 94.62 per cent of votes at a hybrid party conference. After winning an indicative vote before Christmas, Mr Merz, the only candidate on the ballot, choked back tears as he finally achieved his political goal – at the third attempt.

“This is a strong signal of a fresh start, we haven’t lost our confidence,” he said. “We have to set ourselves the ambition of being the government of tomorrow. It may be a long road but how long it is depends also on us.”

After a disastrous federal election result last September, which ended the CDU’s 16-year run in office, Saturday’s vote saw frustrated members bypass party grandees to choose their third leader in little more than three years – this time directly.

The Merz victory comes two decades after his rapid rise through the ranks to become parliamentary party leader. Sensing his rhetorical talent – and political ambition – CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel, then opposition leader, elbowed him out and took his job.

After leaving politics in frustration, he returned in 2018 when Dr Merkel handed back the party leadership.

Two failed CDU leaders later, Dr Merkel stayed away from Saturday’s conference. Her centrist camp are watching closely to see the new leader’s plans to rebuild and unite their decimated party.

In a lively speech the new 66-year-old leader criticised chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is six weeks in office, for poor leadership in the growing Russia-Ukraine crisis.

“You have yet to go to Washington or Moscow,” said Mr Merz. “In a situation like this, all your predecessors would have shown leadership, taken the initiative, been part of international discussion.”

Conservative shift

The CDU leader also signalled a conservative shift after nearly two decades of pragmatic, centrist Merkel politics that won elections but alienated party conservatives. In a dig at his predecessor, Mr Merz promised “not to chase the zeitgeist”.

“We will defend the family, we don’t want to allow societal change wash over us, we want to shape it,” he said.

With a looming challenge to pay off Germany’s pandemic debt and rebalance the budgets, the CDU leader – a trained lawyer and, until recently, investment fund manager – promised to keep a critical gaze on public finances.

“We know that the economy isn’t everything but, without a functioning economy, there’s no way to shape prosperity and transformation,” he added.

Saturday marked a complete changing of the guard at the CDU’s headquarters, the Konrad-Adenauer-Haus, bringing a generation of under-50 politicians into position.

With the first of this year’s four regional elections looming next month, Mr Merz has little time to waste in his new job. His party is defending power in all but one of those polls.

Meanwhile, Mr Scholz, after his inaugural visit to Paris last month, will on Tuesday welcome French president Emmanuel Macron to Berlin.