(Bloomberg) -- A 1920s-themed Berlin ballroom packed with several hundred supporters was the unlikely stage for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative nemesis to unveil his comeback bid.
“I’m ready to do this,” Friedrich Merz told the audience when someone asked whether he was ready seek the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union party and run for chancellor in Germany’s next election.
He sprinkled his speech late Thursday with criticism of Merkel’s climate policy and her response to European proposals by France, suggesting she’s too cautious. He also expressed “a lot of respect” for the four-term chancellor, who has said she won’t run again in 2021.
Still, there’s no mistaking it: Merz is back and that’s bad news for Merkel. Her plan to serve out her term through 2021 may run into trouble if her longtime critic finally wins the party chairmanship.Merz, 64, comes from the conservative wing of the Christian Democratic Union and has been a harsh critic of Merkel’s more centrist approach ever since she fired him as her caucus leader in 2002.
His first comeback attempt failed in 2018 when he lost the contest for the CDU leadership against Merkel’s protege Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Now, the chance for revenge on Merkel is coming into sight again.
Merkel’s team is alarmed about the prospect of Merz becoming party leader, according to one official with knowledge of their thinking. They are hoping that North Rhine-Westphalia state premier Armin Laschet will strike a deal with Health Minister Jens Spahn to avoid an open power struggle.
What worries Merkel is that Merz could force an unpredictable three-way contest by seizing the initiative early and pressing his claim with members, the official said.
Since returning to his post as supervisory board chairman of BlackRock’s German unit after his defeat by Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merz has continued to snipe at Merkel’s leadership.
Her “passivity and lack of leadership” are hanging over Germany like “fog,” Merz said in October after the party suffered historic losses in elections for the eastern state of Thuringia. “I just cannot imagine that this way of governing in Germany will go on for another two years,” he said.
It’s also difficult to imagine Merkel remaining chancellor long if Merz takes control of her party machinery.
A succession that looked stitched up for Merkel loyalist Kramp-Karrenbauer was blown wide open this week when the fallout from that defeat in Thuringia forced Kramp-Karrenbauer to resign. As local parties maneuvered to piece together a majority in the fragmented state legislature, the CDU ended up voting alongside the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, for the first time ever.
The incident triggered nationwide outrage and when the local party leader brushed off Kramp-Karrenbauer’s attempts to bring him into line, Merkel was forced to step in and restore order.
From Merkel’s perspective, the best candidate would be Laschet, a moderate who would most likely continue her liberal policies on refugees and workers’ rights. But Laschet has not signaled whether he will run. If he did, he would risk his position as premier of Germany’s most populous state.
Merz, in contrast, has nothing to lose. Already wealthy from his business career, he has announced he’ll step down from BlackRock at the end of March.
As CDU leader, he would push for a much more market-oriented economic policy and restrictions on immigration. During his first campaign in November 2018, Merz pledged to regain voters lost to the AfD by focusing on Germany’s national identity.Under Kramp-Karrenbauer, the opposite happened. The AfD made inroads in a series of state elections in eastern Germany while the CDU descended into infighting over how to respond to the threat.
In a sign that he’s already taking on the challenge, Merz will speak at a traditional CDU event in Thuringia on Feb. 26 marking Ash Wednesday.
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