Mon. May 23rd, 2022

Conservative MP Friedrich Merz has been elected leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, promising a “fresh start” for a party still reeling from its defeat in last September’s Bundestag election.

Merz was elected with 94.62 percent of the vote of deputies at a CDU party conference, after promising to form a “powerful opposition” against Social Democratic chancellor Olaf Scholz and his SPD green-liberal coalition.

His victory was a foregone conclusion, after beating two other candidates to win a poll of CDU members in December. He has long enjoyed great popularity among the CDU’s ranks, although the party’s senior leadership has always been suspicious of its strong brand of conservative politics.

Merz’s election marks the end of a long period of introspection for a party accustomed to being on the opposition benches for the first time in 16 years and only for the third time in its history. It garnered only 24.1 percent in the September election, compared to the SPD’s 25.7.

Merz spoke to delegates before the vote, launching a broad-based attack on Scholz, accusing him of lacking leadership. He said he had called for compulsory vaccinations, but had so far failed to submit a government bill on the issue to the Bundestag: that he had kept quiet about inflation, which is at its highest level in 30 years; and that he still has to travel to Washington and Moscow, despite a crisis on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

“All your predecessors. . . would have shown leadership in a situation like this, ”he said. “They would have been in daily contact with their partners.”

Merz gained notoriety in the 1990s, when his reputation as a liberal reformer with a penchant for rhetoric pointed him out as a rising star in the CDU. He became leader of the Christian Democrats’ parliamentary group in 2000, but lost the post in a power struggle with Angela Merkel and left the Bundestag in 2009 to pursue a career in the business world. From 2016 to 2020, he was chairman of BlackRock Germany, a position that made him a multimillionaire.

Saturday’s election was a happy third for Merz. His last two bids for the CDU leadership ended in a narrow defeat – first against Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in 2018 and then against Armin Laschet, the former prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, last January. Both were seen as moderates committed to Merkel’s centrist, pragmatic course while Merz is a Conservative who has often complained that the CDU has drifted too far to the left among its old rival.

In his speech Saturday, Merz said he would seek to improve the morale of his beleagured party, saying his election defeat contained a “new beginning, a new chance.” He said his three tasks as leader would be to form a strong opposition, win the four critical regional elections to be held in Germany this year and draw up a new party program.

In his speech, Merz set out a strong conservative agenda, saying the CDU would “protect the family” and “meet the Bundeswehr and our European and international obligations”, and oppose the creation of a “dominant European federal state”.

He said the party’s task was not to “run to the spirit of the times”, and identified one of its key priorities as reforming Germany’s social security system.

While acknowledging the need to fight climate change, he made an effort to highlight his differences with Scholz’s “traffic light” coalition on the issue, and in particular on the role of the state in mitigating global warming.

Climate policy “can not only be implemented through public finances, high taxes and levies,” he said. “It can only work if we take things with us.”

“We know that the economy is not everything, but without a successful, competitive economy we will not succeed in greening our country or maintaining our welfare system in the long run,” he said.

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