The leader of German conservatism finally has his long-desired goal tantalizingly within reach. German politics is in such a mess—with the country beset by rolling labor strikes and the government suffering unprecedented unpopularity—that the path to the German chancellery seems clear of obstacles. Yet at each step of the way in his long career, Friedrich Merz has been found himself outmaneuvered. Will this time be any different?
Logic dictates that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the only mainstream party not in the government, should be preparing for next year’s general election with enthusiasm. Instead, the CDU is looking over its shoulder to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is harnessing an alarming number of angry voters and testing the resilience of postwar German liberal democracy. The CDU leads in the polls, but only just. The AfD is a close second and is easily outperforming three parties in the governing coalition—Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens, and the liberal Free Democrats.
Scholz’s personal ratings are dire, but Merz’s are not much better. He now openly blames his predecessor, former Chancellor Angela Merkel, for moving the CDU so far to the center so as to make it indistinguishable from the rest. Since taking over the party in January 2022 (his fifth attempt in a career spanning half a century), Merz has yanked his party to the right in the hope of blunting the AfD’s attacks.
In so doing, he has alienated more moderate voters. Members of his party openly discuss whether the abrasive Merz is the right man to stand as its candidate for chancellor. Of the two likely alternatives, Markus Söder—the leader of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party—has the merits of familiarity and a certain traditionalism. Hendrik Wüst, the premier of the country’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, represents the younger, modernizing tendency.
Merz bridles at the speculation, insisting that he is best placed to give his party a sharper edge and refashion respectable German conservatism for this tougher era.
With Germany’s economy between stagnation and recession, the CDU has outlined a 12-point “emergency” package to stimulate the economy. Based around tax a cut in corporation tax, greater scope for employers and employees to work flexibly and a removal of regulations “that increase bureaucracy,” it represents a return to more traditional free-market Conservatism designed to apply the middle classes. This would be partly funded by a cap on social security benefits. But, after a recent Constitutional Court verdict on government borrowing for green projects leaving a $65 billion hole in the federal budget, all parties are scrambling to identify revenue-raising targets.
On the key battleground issue, migration, he has shed the “welcome culture” that defined Merkel’s CDU, particularly her decision in 2015 to allow the entry of 1 million migrants fleeing mainly from the Middle East. In December 2023, the CDU unveiled a draft policy program which proposed that asylum-seekers be relocated to so-called safe third countries for their claims to be processed. This is a broad echo of the British government’s troubled plans to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda.
For Merz, such a clampdown is a matter not just of political survival, but also of principle. He has been advocating a tough stance on immigration for two decades—when such views were deemed unthinkable. He has called for policies based on Leitkultur, or “leading culture,” a concept that requires respect for German values and rule of law alongside robust integration and assimilation measures.
The CDU is not alone in this; the coalition government recently approved tougher immigration policies, including the imposition of spot border controls.
The dilemma facing all the parties, and the CDU in particular, about dealing with the AfD spans several fronts, including policies, tone, and the manner of engagement. On language, Merz has veered between trying to be inclusive and indulging in dog whistling of the “I know what you’re really thinking” variety.
Back in 2020, during one of his several failed leadership bids, he was asked whether he would have reservations if a gay chancellor were to lead Germany. “No,” he replied. “Concerning the question of sexual orientation, as long as it is within the law and does not affect children—which at this point, for me, would be an absolute limit—it is not an issue for public discussion.”
Amid an outcry, he sought to clarify, saying he had not meant to link homosexuality with pedophilia. On another occasion, he spoke of “little pashas” in an apparent reference to Muslim parents intervening on behalf of their children. Then, a few months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he referred to some Ukrainian refugees as engaging in “welfare tourism.” During each row, he has blamed his accusers for taking his remarks out of context.
Merz’s most controversial utterance to date revolved around the vexed question of the “firewall,” or the commitment by the mainstream parties not to enter political deals with the AfD, either at the regional or national level. Under Merz, the CDU’s commitment has at times appeared to wane. In July 2023, when the far-right party won its first municipal election, he stated in a television interview: “If the head of a district authority or a mayor is voted in who belongs to the AfD, then of course you find ways to continue to work in that town.”
This trend is consistent with other parts of Europe. At the time of last year’s Spanish elections, the conservative People’s Party said it would be happy to join forces with the far-right Vox. In the Netherlands, the center-right party of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte has also entered into discussions with the victorious Party for Freedom, led by veteran right-wing populist Geert Wilders.
Yet in Germany, where history continues to weigh on public life, the firewall has long been deemed sacrosanct. The mayor of Berlin, Kai Wegner, was one of many leading CDU politicians who hit back hard at Merz’s suggestion. Their party, Wegner insisted, “cannot, doesn’t want to, and will not cooperate with a party whose business model is hate, division and exclusion.” Merz has not helped his cause by also describing his party as the “Alternative for Germany of substance” and by denouncing the Greens as ‘our main enemy.’
Over the past two months, the debate has become even more highly charged since investigative journalists exposed a November 2023 meeting of far-right and neo-Nazi politicians in which a “master plan” for the mass deportation of foreigners and “nonassimilated” Germans was discussed. The now-infamous Potsdam event has galvanized mainstream politicians and civil society to fight back against the AfD with a series of mass demonstrations across the country. The fact that several CDU members attended the event was embarrassing for Merz, who swiftly pledged to expel them.
The furor over the Potsdam meeting does not, however, appear to have dented AfD support. It is still expected to constitute the largest grouping, or a close second (to the CDU), in June’s elections to the European Parliament; even more dramatically, it could storm to victory in any or all of three elections in September, which will take place in Thuringia, Saxony, and Brandenburg.
If that happens, the CDU will be under intense pressure to club together with the other mainstream parties to keep the AfD out in those regions, assembling unwieldly cross-spectrum coalitions.
Merz’s dilemma is acute. If he continues the rightward march of the CDU, he will further alienate many of those who embraced the party under Merkel. If he does not, he will leave the field clear for the AfD to continue to pick up disaffected conservative voters.
In a recent parliamentary debate, notable for its personal acrimony, Scholz accused Merz of opportunism and recklessness. “How can you want to gamble away Germany’s future the way you are doing? Economic expertise: zero.” He went on to describe the CDU leader as “a sensitive wilting flower” before turning to a sporting analogy: “I don’t think anyone who boxes should have a glass chin. But you have quite the glass chin, Mr. Merz.”
The pugnacious Merz will fight on, knowing that this is his big chance, and his last chance. He can console himself that the CDU enjoys a significant lead over the SPD and the Greens, while the Free Democrats might even end up falling below the 5 percent threshold required to enter parliament.
For all his woes, Merz remains the most likely next chancellor in 2025—if he can persuade his party to stick with him.
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