Millionaire right-winger Friedrich Merz to lead Germany's conservatives

Former rival of Angela Merkel seeks to rebuild CDU after election defeat

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Germany’s opposition conservatives have elected millionaire Friedrich Merz as their new leader, signalling a rightward shift for a party at a low ebb after the departure of longtime chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mr Merz, 66, won the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union at the third attempt after failing in previous bids in 2018 and in January this year.

He took 62 per cent of the vote after the leadership race was opened up to the party’s rank and file for the first time.

Foreign policy expert Norbert Roettgen won 24 per cent, with Mrs Merkel’s former chief of staff Helge Braun on 12 per cent.

A former corporate lawyer and rival of Mrs Merkel, Mr Merz has called for the CDU to stake out more conservative positions after years of vaguely defined centrism under the former chancellor.

An economics specialist and critic of Mrs Merkel’s refugee policies, he has expressed a desire to win back CDU voters lost to the far-right Alternative for Germany – although he rules out co-operating with the party.

“Thank you for this overwhelming trust that you have placed in me with this vote,” Mr Merz told CDU supporters after his victory. “It’s a great result for the party, and for me personally.”

Mr Merz was once a parliamentary leader of the CDU, but was sidelined by Mrs Merkel and left politics in the early 2000s to enter the private sector.

His personal wealth, two private jets and long hiatus from politics have led to suggestions he is out of touch with modern Germany.

He was ridiculed in January after rejecting claims that he had a problem among female voters by reminding people he had a wife and daughter.

But he described such criticism as missing the mark. “We will be a modern, big-tent party,” he told broadcasters on Friday.

LEIPZIG, GERMANY - DECEMBER 2:  Friedrich Merz (L), head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) faction in the Bundestag and Angela Merkel, head of the party, speak prior to Merz's speech on tax reform at the CDU party congress December 2, 2003 in Leipzig, Germany. The CDU, Germany's main opposition party, is proposing a string of counter reforms in response to the social and economic reform plans of the current Social Democrat/Green government. (Photo Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In his previous leadership bids, Mr Merz was twice defeated by candidates who advocated a more centrist course and continuity with the Merkel era.

But the party is in need of renewal after slumping to the lowest vote share at its history at September’s election, sending it into opposition.

Mr Merz returned to parliament at that election, at which Mrs Merkel declined to seek a fifth term and her popularity failed to rub off on outgoing party chief Armin Laschet.

The leadership result will make Mr Merz one of the most prominent opponents of the new coalition government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

It does not settle the question of who will seek the chancellorship for the centre right at the next election. The CDU’s Bavarian sister party and its leader Markus Soeder made a failed bid to fly the conservative flag at this year’s election.

Lars Klingbeil, the co-chairman of Mr Scholz’s Social Democrats, said he looked forward to a fair, democratic competition with Mr Merz.

“I think it’s great that there’s a culture of third chances in our country,” he quipped.

Updated: December 18, 2021, 2:43 PM
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