Saturday, May 8, 2021

Meet the German Donald Trump

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BERLIN — A combative old white man who speaks of gays and pedophiles in the same breath, dismisses gender debates as a waste of time and who can’t stand Angela Merkel could hardly be more out of step with the zeitgeist.

That hasn’t stopped Friedrich Merz from trying to become Germany’s next chancellor. The bigger surprise is that he has an outside chance of succeeding.

A one-time rising star in the Christian Democrats as a protégé of conservative stalwart Wolfgang Schäuble, Merz saw his political ambitions hit a wall in 2002 when Merkel, then already party leader, pushed him aside to take control of the CDU’s parliamentary group.

Merz, 65, a corporate lawyer by trade, has spent most of the intervening nearly 20 years quietly stewing while sitting on company boards and making a small fortune.

Through it all, he remained a darling of the CDU’s right wing, which never warmed to Merkel. Many conservatives accuse her of violating the party’s core principles by taking it too far to the left on issues such as migration and social policy. They argue that Merkel’s policies opened the flank to the right of the CDU, allowing for the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany, which has become the country’s largest opposition party.

After Merkel stepped down as party leader in 2018, Merz — whom older Germans remembered as an outspoken fiscal hawk and defender of traditional values — appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the race to succeed her. He denied suggestions he wanted to settle old scores, however, insisting that public service was his only motivation.

At the time, Germany was still struggling with the aftermath of the refugee crisis, the CDU had just suffered a string of electoral setbacks, and Merkel’s popularity was flagging. Merz managed to tap into that discord and nearly succeeded in beating Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s handpicked choice to follow her as chancellor, in the leadership race.

But only nearly. In the end, Kramp-Karrenbauer won the backing of the party convention, swaying delegates with an impassioned speech.

Two years on, following Kramp-Karrenbauer’s surprise decision to step back from the role and relinquish her aspirations of succeeding Merkel as chancellor, Merz has once again returned. This time, he faces Merkel’s new choice to succeed her, Armin Laschet, premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, and Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign relations committee.

Party delegates are expected to elect one of the three as the CDU’s new leader in January. The winner will become the party’s presumptive candidate for chancellor and, assuming the CDU and its Bavarian sister party hold their top position, Germany’s next chancellor.

If the CDU’s recent history is any guide, however, the succession is unlikely to go smoothly.

That’s in large measure due to Merz, who, channeling his inner Trump, has hinted that the establishment was conspiring to undermine his candidacy.

“It’s not going to work,” he told his purported enemies in a TV interview last month, referring to himself in the third person. “You’re not going to ground Merz down or wear him out. He’s going to remain standing.”

Merz opposed the CDU leadership’s plan to delay the convention, a step the party said it was compelled to take as a result of the pandemic. More than 1,000 delegates are expected to attend the meeting. The laws that govern Germany’s political parties make holding the meeting online and voting remotely legally fraught.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is still the CDU’s leader, and other party officials denied that the delay had anything to do with Merz.

But Merz wouldn’t let up and in the end the candidates and party agreed to hold the vote in January instead of sometime in the spring, as Kramp-Karrenbauer had recommended. While the party plans to hash out the details next month, the trajectory of the pandemic and Germany’s soaring infection rate may yet throw a wrench in the works.

The reason for Merz’s urgency is that he is leading in the polls, well ahead of his two rivals. In one survey published by Der Spiegel this month, for example, Merz led the field with 26 percent, followed by Röttgen and Laschet with 10.6 percent and 8.1 percent respectively. German Health Minister Jens Spahn, who isn’t even officially in the running, placed second with 23 percent. More than 20 percent of respondents said they’d prefer a different candidate.

The poll numbers notwithstanding, public opinion might not have much influence on the outcome. That’s because the only votes that matter are those cast by the convention’s 1,001 delegates, a group comprising party functionaries from across Germany’s 16 states.

The biggest contingent comes from North Rhine-Westphalia, a fact that many think will give Laschet, the state’s leader, the advantage. And while Merz is popular with right wingers, there is ample reason to question his appeal to the general population, which has shown no inclination to abandon Merkel’s decidedly centrist course.

Even so, given that the vote is secret and there will be a runoff, a serious prediction of the winner is next to impossible.

Though very much a product of the German establishment — not to mention the CDU’s — Merz’s strategy has been to cast himself as the maverick outsider willing to speak uncomfortable truths to the party leadership. In a recent essay, Merz acknowledged Merkel’s steady hand under difficult circumstances but suggested that her policies “heightened the risk” of triggering new crises.

“Are we really doing enough or even the right things,” he asked in connection to the government’s pandemic response.

Running against the system made sense two years ago when Merkel was on the ropes and the CDU was seething over her management of the refugee crisis, but it may make less sense now. Merkel is by far Germany’s most popular politician with approval ratings over 70 percent. Even the CDU has rediscovered its fondness for her.

That would suggest the party is more likely to go with the tried and true, represented by an establishment figure such as Laschet, rather than a disrupter like Merz.

Some in party fear that a Merz victory would leave the party deeply divided between mainstream Merkelites and a more conservative Merz faction. Others worry that his conservative stances would alienate the centrist voters Merkel drew to the party in recent years and jeopardize a coalition with the Greens — which most political observers in Berlin see as the likely outcome of next fall’s general election.

A Merz victory “would be a disaster,” warned one official close to the party leadership.

Merz, who declined requests for comment, has raised eyebrows both in and outside the party for controversial remarks on a range of subjects from homosexuality to COVID-19.

Asked in September whether he would have any objections to a gay person becoming chancellor, he said no, adding: “Sexual orientation is none of the public’s business. As long as it is legal and doesn’t involve children — an absolute limit for me — it isn’t a subject for public discussion.”

Many people, including in the CDU, criticized Merz for reviving a trope about homosexuals and pedophilia, an accusation he denied. As with the dispute over the convention, Merz claimed that unnamed forces were plotting against him, intentionally twisting his words to undermine him.

He struck a similar note during a prime time talkshow on German public television this month, where he was a guest alongside Green leader Annalena Baerbock and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat. When the show’s host asked Merz his view on gender pronouns, a hot button issue among progressives, Merz was incredulous.

“We need to sort out our priorities a bit here,” he said, raising his voice and leaning forward in his seat. “We have a few other problems at the moment that we need to solve.”

In the midst of a debate about new pandemic restrictions earlier this month, Merz caused another stir by asserting “it is none of the government’s business” whom he or other Germans celebrate Christmas with. With Germany facing record infections and deaths, critics said the remarks were irresponsible for a man who aspires to lead the country.

Indeed, despite his devoted following among hardcore conservatives, many in the CDU privately wonder if Merz is really up to the job. A fiscal conservative, best known for suggesting in the early 2000s that Germany’s tax returns should be simple enough to fit on one of the square cardboard mats Germans place under glasses of beer (a so-called Bierdeckel), Merz has little management experience. He has spent most of his professional career practicing corporate law and on boards. What’s more, he hasn’t been on the front lines of German politics since he resigned as deputy leader of the CDU’s parliamentary group in 2004.

More recently, Merz spent several years as the chairman of U.S. asset manager BlackRock’s German subsidiary, a position he gave up this year to run for the CDU job. But people close to the firm say his primary mission was that of a door opener, that is to use his network in the service of BlackRock’s interests.

Does Merz have the experience to lead Europe’s largest country? Some of those who worked with him closely have their doubts, describing him as the opposite of a team player and ill-suited for the consensus-driven world of a government coalition. “He has to make every decision himself,” one former Merz underling said, adding that he tended to ignore outside advice.

Yet after 20 years of Merkel’s plodding consensus-driven style, many in the CDU long for Merz’s forceful can-do approach. The only question is whether Germany is prepared to live with the consequences.

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