As Angela Merkel battled Europe’s multiple crises in 2014, Friedrich Merz was meeting with conservative critics to gripe about her leadership.
Merz’s own political aspirations had long since been sidelined by the chancellor and his allies could tell it still rankled. On one occasion, his wife Charlotte vented their frustrations.
“Friedrich, you would have done a much better job,” she said, according to a lawmaker who was present.
With Merkel’s power ebbing now as she prepares to step back from her role as party leader, Merz may finally get a chance to prove his wife was right. But senior officials fear his power grab could start an internal war in Germany’s biggest party, putting the chancellor’s achievements in jeopardy.
The 63-year-old Merz is one of two frontrunners in the race to take over from Merkel as head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) when a 1,001 party delegates vote in Hamburg.
With opinion polls showing the CDU is unlikely to be unseated at the next election, despite Merkel’s travails, the winner will become Germany’s de facto leader in waiting as the chancellor’s career winds down.
With two days to go, the race is wide open.
Conservative Favourite Merz’s unrepentant conservatism has wowed traditionalists who bristled as Merkel dragged their party toward the center — her former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble endorsed his candidacy. His rival, Merkel loyalist Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, appeals to those concerned about the turmoil a Merz victory might trigger.
Merz himself denies that he would seek to push Merkel out before she is ready.
“Every new party leader, me too, will be tied to the coalition agreement,” he said at a campaign event in Luebeck near the country’s Baltic coast. “This will also determine my future relationship to Angela Merkel.” But the party’s rank and file aren’t all buying that line.
“He is definitely not returning to politics because of the money,” CDU member Eckhard Roeder said after listening to Merz that night. “He wants power. He will go for the Chancellery.”
Although Merkel’s position as chancellor is well protected by the German constitution, Merz could make life very difficult for her by laying open differences between her government and her party.
At another campaign event in the East he called for a debate about the constitutional right to asylum, a cornerstone of the post-war political order in Germany. Though he later rowed back somewhat, immigration policy would become tougher under Merz, who has indicated Merkel’s refugee policy is a betrayal of the party’s conservative values.
Merz was a rising star of the CDU’s conservative wing when Merkel took over the party in 2000 but he was forced out of his position as head of the parliamentary caucus after clashing with the new leader. He left the Bundestag in 2009 to pursue a career in business.