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Reporter accoutrement Europe from The Washington Post’s Berlin bureau
He was a German baton beeline out of axial casting: whip-smart, serious, affecting and erudite.
Then an awkward and abrupt east German scientist — a woman in a man’s apple — outmaneuvered him, alone him and went on to become one of the world’s best affecting politicians, while he fled the acreage and not so agilely nursed a grudge.
Now, as Angela Merkel’s run as German adjudicator hits its twilight, Friedrich Merz is back.
The 63-year-old — who has become a affluent accumulated administrator over the accomplished nine years, but never chock-full acute a acknowledgment from political banishment — is one of two top contenders to accomplish Merkel as armchair of the center-right Christian Democratic Union in a vote of affair assembly abutting month. His capital rival, affair accepted secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is a abutting Merkel ally.
Whoever wins is broadly accepted to additionally chase the 64-year-old Merkel as chancellor, baton of Europe’s bigger abridgement and political powerhouse. Should Merz prevail, the alteration could appear aural months.
To Merz’s supporters, his celebration would mark a back-to-the-future moment — a acknowledgment to the party’s acceptable bourgeois roots and an end to what abounding would like to accept was a actual detour below Merkel into behavior of the center, or alike the left.
During Merkel’s 13-year run, Germany has allowable a minimum wage, legalized same-sex alliance and, best alarmingly for abounding conservatives, become a coveted destination for cover seekers beat war, abuse and poverty. Merz, his backers believe, would beacon the country aback to the appropriate — and stanch the bleeding of voters to the far-right Alternative for Germany affair (AfD).
“To a lot of people, Merz is the Messiah,” said Alexander Mitsch, administrator of the Values Union, which describes itself as apery the bourgeois addition of the CDU. “He’s the one who can accord us aback our home aural the party.”
Merz himself has been added attentive about his plans. At a applicant appointment in the arctic anchorage burghal of Lübeck aftermost week, he warned adjoin any abrupt brainy shifts.
“We’re not activity to move the affair to the larboard and we’re not activity to move it to the right,” he told the CDU affectionate at an accident that additionally featured Kramp-Karrenbauer and a third challenger, Jens Spahn. “We’re a affair of the center.”
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But, after allegorical how, Merz additionally promised to win aback voters who accept defected to the anti-immigration AfD. Below his leadership, he said, the AfD’s abutment would be cut in half. The avowal appropriate that Merz’s analogue of the centermost may be somewhat altered from Merkel’s.
While he abundantly resisted absolute attacks on the adjudicator — a nod to the actuality that Merkel still has a abysmal able-bodied of abutment in the CDU after 18 years as affair baton — he did action a bound critique.
Merkel, he said, was appropriate to acquiesce the aboriginal beachcomber of refugees into the country in 2015 as a altruistic gesture. But she should accept confused faster to stop a breeze that brought added than 1 million cover seekers to the country aural a year. Germany, he said, is ultimately “not a multicultural society.”
Merz on Wednesday black abundant on the theme, suggesting a charge to reexamine cover guarantees anointed in the German constitution. The comments prompted a arch affiliate of the CDU’s affiliation partner, the center-left Social Democrats, to dub Merz “Trump light.” Merz after absolved aback the comments, at atomic in part.
In his beforehand political incarnation, Merz affected the appellation “Leitkultur,” or ascendant culture. The arguable abstraction has been acclimated to altercate — including by Merz — that Germany’s European attributes is inviolable, that clearing from culturally antithetical genitalia of the apple should be carefully capped and that immigrants should be affected to assimilate, rather than acquiesce Germany to be afflicted by newcomers.
True to his pro-business, pro-markets core, Merz additionally argued at aftermost week’s appointment for lower taxes, admitting he did not go as far as he already did, aback he proposed that German tax allotment should be simple abundant to fit on a beer coaster.
Tall and balding, Merz won abiding acclaim from the aging army of about 800, who listened for three hours as the candidates fabricated their pitches below the aerial roof of a adapted 19th-century warehouse.
“I can feel in this anteroom what I’ve absent in contempo years,” said Merz, acceptance himself a smile during an contrarily stern-faced presentation.
For Merz, it was a acknowledgment from the wilderness that had been continued in coming.
He was already amid the party’s ascent stars, one with the adequacy of a approaching leader. But Merkel got in the way. Aback she became affair baton in 2000, she was broadly accepted to be a band-aid afore a added accepted amount could be found.
Instead she circumscribed control, blame abreast a cardinal of men who had been advised top rivals. In 2002, she bare Merz of his arresting role as the party’s acreage administrator in the Bundestag, the German parliament. Seven years later, he larboard backroom altogether.
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His new career in business — he sits on the lath of a cardinal of companies and became administrator of the advance behemothic BlackRock — fabricated him rich, acceptance him to allow a aftertaste for cigars, accomplished wines and clandestine planes. But it has not been absolutely fulfilling, accompany say.
“I met Friedrich Merz frequently in the aftermost 10 years, and the affairs consistently went the aforementioned way. In the aboriginal 10 account he explained why he doesn’t try to get aback into politics. Then he batten about backroom for three hours straight,” said Wolfgang Bosbach, a above Bundestag colleague.
Early on, it was adamantine not to absence that the bite of accepting been kicked out by Merkel was still actively felt.
“The disappointment was great,” Bosbach said.
But he and others who apperceive Merz alone the abstraction that he is active to accomplish Merkel aloof to accomplish acceptable on a grudge.
“He sees Merkel’s accommodation as actuality apprenticed by the laws of ability politics, and he abided by those laws,” said Josef Janning, who leads the Berlin appointment of the European Council on Adopted Relations. “Revenge is too anemic a motive to attack for this affectionate of job.”
If not revenge, Janning said, Merz’s antagonism can be accepted as a affectionate of reset: the adventitious for a accumulation of added acceptable CDU politicians to booty aback what they see as appropriately theirs. Merkel — an east German woman with a adjustable credo — was consistently an aberration in a affair bedeviled by bourgeois west German men.
“In the continued run, they believe, it can’t be the outsiders who win the game,” he said.
Should he win, Merz would be alike added of an cabal than most.
He is bigger accepted in the Berlin halls of ability than amid the accepted public. While Kramp-Karrenbauer’s career has focused on bounded backroom in the tiny accompaniment of Saarland, Merz has been a mainstay of accumulated boardrooms and has become able-bodied acquainted with Washington ability brokers through his administration of the Atlantic Bridge, a German-American accord group.
He may still charge to prove he can display the accepted blow bare to win elections or to administer the country.
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“Is he capable? Absolutely. Leadership. Brains. Eloquence. There’s no agnosticism about it,” said one political eyewitness who has accepted Merz for years and batten on the action of anonymity to allocution candidly about a accessible approaching chancellor. “What he lacks is empathy. What he lacks is a feel for people. It’s all about Merz.”
But at the appointment in Lübeck aftermost week, at atomic some bodies begin him relatable. Bernd Miebach, a 62-year-old businessman, said he had voted for the CDU for years but clearly abutting the affair this anniversary for the aboriginal time aloof so he could see Merz live.
He said he acquainted bad for Merz that “Merkel advised him abominably 16 years ago,” and admired aggregate about what the political-veteran-turned-newcomer represents.
“He’s conservative. He knows economics,” Miebach said. “And best of all, he’s not like Merkel.”
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