Germany’s next chancellor? Where did it all go right for Friedrich Merz?

The country is gearing up for elections in 2025 and the CDU leader plans to come out on top

Friedrich Merz towered nearly 40cm over Ursula von der Leyen when the two political veterans took to a German election rally stage last Friday, their eyes fixed firmly on two different election goals.

European Commission president Dr von der Leyen is lead candidate for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and, in what she calls Europe’s “momentous” June 6th-9th elections, is hoping for strong backing among voters for her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

“Europe is being challenged like never before by populists, racists and demagogues,” she warned, promising to defend European freedoms, liberal values and the rule of law.

At her side, CDU leader Merz agreed that “defending freedom” against populist extremism is part of next weekend’s vote.


A strong EPP showing will help launch a crucial year for the CDU: after four years in opposition, the party will launch its re-election push this time next year, and Merz wants to be Germany’s next chancellor.

A CDU member since 1972, he started his career in the European Parliament in 1989 and, now 68, he has had Germany’s longest-ever audition for the top job.

He was CDU floor leader in the Bundestag for two years, until Angela Merkel elbowed her ambitious deputy out in 2002 to take his job.

In one of the great feuds of modern German politics, he left politics and earned a fortune in investment banking before returning as Merkel stood down as CDU chair in 2018. She hindered – twice – Merz taking the top job but he succeeded on the third attempt after the disastrous 2021 federal election.

Back up eight points since then under his leadership, the party is riding high in all opinion polls with 32 per cent. If next Sunday’s election was for the Bundestag, the Merz CDU and his Bavarian CSU allies would finish neck and neck with the three parties that make up Olaf Scholz’s “traffic light” coalition – counted together.

So why did it all go so right for Merz, his critics wonder, given his strengths and weaknesses remain the same as ever?

A gifted speaker, Merz uses the Bundestag podium to launch memorable put-downs of policy and people, suggesting Scholz, for instance, was not a natural leader and a more workmanlike “plumber of power”. Though he scored points for that one, Merz remains a divisive figure even in his own party.

Der Spiegel likened Merz, with a tongue as sharp as his mind, to a public prosecutor, “pushing for a guilty verdict with cold brilliance and a little arrogance”.

Unlike the equanimous Merkel, Merz is given to mood swings and outbursts and humiliating dressing-downs of his own MPs on the Bundestag floor.

As the Scholz coalition slumps and election season nears, however, internal criticisms of Merz are evaporating as the prospect of cabinet jobs loom.

After six years of policy drift – and two luckless post-Merkel leaders – the Merz CDU presented a new 70-page party programme earlier this month.

It aims to retain centrist Merkel-era voters by embracing “diverse families” while appealing to floating voters with tax-break promises. But its most interesting angle is the programme’s revived conservative profile to win back right-of-centre voters.

The CDU programme says Germany “cannot do without nuclear power” – abolished in the Merkel years – while Germany needs to push back against the agreed EU shift to electric mobility within the decade.

“Phasing out combustion engines damages our prosperity,” said Carsten Linnemann, CDU secretary general and party programme driving force. “It’s like sawing away the branch from under us.”

The programme hopes, too, to win back voters from the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) with promises of tighter asylum laws involving “secure third countries” and a pushback against “ideological gender terminology”.

Muslims are welcome in Germany, the programme says, but not “an Islam that doesn’t share our families and rejects our free society”.

It remains to be seen how this play for disillusioned AfD voters will transfer into a programme for government with the Greens, arithmetically the CDU’s best coalition option at present. While the leading Merz rival in the CDU insists the coming election will be won or lost in the political centre, Merz remained focused last Friday – for European elections and next year’s federal poll – on what he called the “AfD spectre”.

“This party is not an alternative for Germany, but a decline for Germany economically and morally,” he said. Wrapping up quickly as storm clouds gathered, Merz insisted his retooled CDU is back as a home for German right-of-centre voters.

“We have to know ourselves,” he said, “who we are, where we are, what we want.”

Now all the CDU has to do is decide if it wants Friedrich Merz for the chancellery.