He was a German leader straight out of central casting: whip-smart, serious, eloquent and erudite.
Then an awkward and unheralded east German scientist — a woman in a man’s world — outmaneuvered him, sidelined him and went on to become one of the world’s most influential politicians, while he fled the field and not so quietly nursed a grudge.
Now, as Angela Merkel’s run as German chancellor hits its twilight, Friedrich Merz is back.
The 63-year-old — who has become a wealthy corporate chieftain over the past nine years, but never stopped plotting a return from political exile — is one of two top contenders to succeed Merkel as chair of the center-right Christian Democratic Union in a vote of party insiders next month. His main rival, party general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is a close Merkel ally.
Whoever wins is widely expected to also follow the 64-year-old Merkel as chancellor, leader of Europe’s largest economy and political powerhouse. Should Merz prevail, the transition could come within months.
To Merz’s supporters, his triumph would mark a back-to-the-future moment — a return to the party’s traditional conservative roots and an end to what many would like to believe was a historical detour under Merkel into policies of the center, or even the left.
During Merkel’s 13-year run, Germany has enacted a minimum wage, legalized same-sex marriage and, most alarmingly for many conservatives, become a coveted destination for asylum seekers fleeing war, oppression and poverty. Merz, his backers believe, would steer the country back to the right — and stanch the bleeding of voters to the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD).
“To a lot of people, Merz is the Messiah,” said Alexander Mitsch, chairman of the Values Union, which describes itself as representing the conservative wing of the CDU. “He’s the one who can give us back our home within the party.”
Merz himself has been more circumspect about his plans. At a candidate forum in the northern port city of Lübeck last week, he warned against any sudden ideological shifts.
“We’re not going to move the party to the left and we’re not going to move it to the right,” he told the CDU faithful at an event that also featured Kramp-Karrenbauer and a third challenger, Jens Spahn. “We’re a party of the center.”
But, without specifying how, Merz also promised to win back voters who have defected to the anti-immigration AfD. Under his leadership, he said, the AfD’s support would be cut in half. The boast suggested that Merz’s definition of the center may be somewhat different from Merkel’s.
While he largely resisted outright attacks on the chancellor — a nod to the fact that Merkel still has a deep well of support in the CDU after 18 years as party leader — he did offer a limited critique.
Merkel, he said, was right to allow the first wave of refugees into the country in 2015 as a humanitarian gesture. But she should have moved faster to stop a flow that brought more than 1 million asylum seekers to the country within a year. Germany, he said, is ultimately “not a multicultural society.”
Merz on Wednesday evening elaborated on the theme, suggesting a need to reexamine asylum guarantees enshrined in the German constitution. The comments prompted a leading member of the CDU’s coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats, to dub Merz “Trump light.” Merz later walked back the comments, at least in part.
In his earlier political incarnation, Merz popularized the term “Leitkultur,” or dominant culture. The controversial idea has been used to argue — including by Merz — that Germany’s European nature is inviolable, that immigration from culturally dissimilar parts of the world should be strictly capped and that immigrants should be forced to assimilate, rather than allow Germany to be changed by newcomers.
True to his pro-business, pro-markets core, Merz also argued at last week’s forum for lower taxes, though he did not go as far as he once did, when he proposed that German tax returns should be simple enough to fit on a beer coaster.
Tall and balding, Merz won sustained applause from the gray-haired crowd of nearly 800, who listened for three hours as the candidates made their pitches beneath the soaring roof of a converted 19th-century warehouse.
“I can feel in this hall what I’ve missed in recent years,” said Merz, allowing himself a smile during an otherwise stern-faced presentation.
For Merz, it was a return from the wilderness that had been long in coming.
He was once among the party’s rising stars, one with the makings of a future leader. But Merkel got in the way. When she became party leader in 2000, she was widely expected to be a stopgap before a more conventional figure could be found.
Instead she consolidated control, pushing aside a number of men who had been considered top rivals. In 2002, she stripped Merz of his prominent role as the party’s field commander in the Bundestag, the German parliament. Seven years later, he left politics altogether.
His new career in business — he sits on the board of a number of companies and became chairman of the investment giant BlackRock — made him rich, allowing him to indulge a taste for cigars, fine wines and private planes. But it has not been entirely fulfilling, friends say.
“I met Friedrich Merz frequently in the last 10 years, and the meetings always went the same way. In the first 10 minutes he explained why he doesn’t try to get back into politics. Then he spoke about politics for three hours straight,” said Wolfgang Bosbach, a former Bundestag colleague.
Early on, it was hard not to miss that the sting of having been kicked out by Merkel was still keenly felt.
“The disappointment was great,” Bosbach said.
But he and others who know Merz rejected the idea that he is running to succeed Merkel just to make good on a grudge.
“He sees Merkel’s decision as being driven by the laws of power politics, and he abided by those laws,” said Josef Janning, who leads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Revenge is too weak a motive to campaign for this kind of job.”
If not revenge, Janning said, Merz’s candidacy can be understood as a kind of reset: the chance for a group of more traditional CDU politicians to take back what they see as rightfully theirs. Merkel — an east German woman with a flexible ideology — was always an anomaly in a party dominated by conservative west German men.
“In the long run, they believe, it can’t be the outsiders who win the game,” he said.
Should he win, Merz would be even more of an insider than most.
He is better known in the Berlin halls of power than among the general public. While Kramp-Karrenbauer’s career has focused on local politics in the tiny state of Saarland, Merz has been a mainstay of corporate boardrooms and has become well acquainted with Washington power brokers through his leadership of the Atlantic Bridge, a German-American friendship group.
He may still need to prove he can exhibit the common touch needed to win elections or to govern the country.
“Is he capable? Absolutely. Leadership. Brains. Eloquence. There’s no doubt about it,” said one political observer who has known Merz for years and spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about a possible future chancellor. “What he lacks is empathy. What he lacks is a feel for people. It’s all about Merz.”
But at the forum in Lübeck last week, at least some people found him relatable. Bernd Miebach, a 62-year-old businessman, said he had voted for the CDU for years but officially joined the party this week for the first time just so he could see Merz live.
He said he felt bad for Merz that “Merkel treated him badly 16 years ago,” and liked everything about what the political-veteran-turned-newcomer represents.
“He’s conservative. He knows economics,” Miebach said. “And most of all, he’s not like Merkel.”