Merkel announced on Monday she would stand down in December as chair of the CDU party and will not run again as chancellor in Germany's federal elections, due in 2021. Economically liberal but socially conservative Merz claims he would be able to return the party to its roots after Merkel’s departure, and Germany's CDU voters seem receptive, the Guardian reported.
A Spiegel Online poll suggested 34% of CDU voters favored Merz as party leader, rating him more favorably than CDU’s secretary general, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is widely regarded as Merkel’s chosen heir but was picked by only 19% of those polled. Another poll, conducted by Handelsblatt, a daily newspaper, also gave the edge to corporate lawyer Merz, saying he'd attract 21% of potential voters versus Kramp-Karrenbauer’s 18%. Both polls suggested that a prominent Merkel critic and opponent of Merz, German Health Minister Jens Spahn, only had 6% support.
Merz on Wednesday denied that his personal tensions with Merkel could prevent him from working with the chancellor, whom he said he respected but not always agreed with. “I’m convinced that under these changed circumstances, we will get along,” he said. Merz also added that the CDU needed “change and renewal, but not revolution” to send a clearer message. “National identity and traditional values must have a firm place in our thinking and actions,” he added.
However, Paul-Jasper Dittrich of the Jacques Delors Institute in Berlin said that while the upper echelons of the CDU had become much more liberal in Merz’s absence, a large part of party’s base remained deeply conservative and would be drawn to his candidacy.
“In coming back in from the cold now as a principled ‘outsider’ who hasn’t much changed, Merz will be able to cater to the needs of the base much more authentically than his competitors,” Dittrich said.
The Süddeutsche Zeitung daily paper suggested Merz’s candidacy had “electrified the CDU because, in Merz, it is the anti-Merkel reaching out for the seat of party chair,” calling his election a “political turnaround in the party.”
Merz is well-known among the German public for his position on immigration — one of the key political challenges for the country. Even before the migrant crisis, Merz insisted that anyone wanting to live in Germany should “conform to Germany’s prevailing liberal culture,” sparking a furious national debate.
Merz used to have the reputation of a divisive figure in the CDU; he once said: “This woman (Merkel) should never have been allowed to become chancellor.” Merz became the party’s parliamentary leader in 2000. However, after the CDU lost to Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats in 2002, he was dislodged by Merkel. In 2009 he left the Bundestag, and was thought to have given up public service for corporate law.