Party job contender downplays tension with Germany’s Merkel

FILE -- in this Tuesday, June 12, 2018 photo Friedrich Merz attends a meeting of the economic council of the Chistian Democratic Party in Berlin, Germany. Merz lost his post as the party's parliamentary leader to Merkel in 2002 and has been absent from front-line politics in recent years. (Jens Buettner/dpa via AP)

BERLIN (AP) — A onetime rival of Chancellor Angela Merkel who is running for her party’s leadership after a decade-long absence from front-line politics downplayed potential tensions with the German leader on Wednesday.

Friedrich Merz, 62, is one of three high-profile candidates vying to become leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union.

Merkel announced on Monday that she will give up the party’s leadership after 18 years in December but plans to remain chancellor until the end of this parliamentary term, launching a transition that could last up to three years. The new CDU leader would be the favorite to run for chancellor in the next election.

Merz led the party’s parliamentary group when it was in opposition, a job that Merkel pushed him out of in 2002. He left parliament in 2009. Many observers struggle to imagine the pair working well together now.

Merz, the first contender to speak at any length about his leadership bid, dismissed such concerns at a news conference in Berlin.

“I am firmly convinced that Angela Merkel and I, under these changed circumstances, will manage and get along with each other,” he said.

Merkel has pushed the CDU relentlessly to the political center in her time as party leader and 13 years as chancellor. That has squeezed rivals to its left but also seen the party lose some voters to the far-right, anti-migration Alternative for Germany.

Merz stands for a business-friendly and more conservative approach. In the past, he advocated radical tax reform and argued that foreigners should learn German “Leitkultur,” which roughly translates as “majority culture.”

On Wednesday, Merz presented himself as a figure who could both span his party’s political breadth and give it a “clear political profile.” He described himself as “an economically liberal person who is conservative in terms of values and socially committed.”

“We must not allow voters, out of frustration or disappointment in established parties, to join … populist movements and allow themselves to be seduced by them,” he said.

In recent years, Merz has practiced as a lawyer and served on the supervisory board of the German branch of investment manager BlackRock. He presented his time away from politics as a virtue, saying that he has “had the opportunity … to look from outside at politics and its decisions.”

Merz stressed the need to bring more young people into the party. He is, however, barely younger than the 64-year-old chancellor.

Merz is competing for the party leadership against Merkel ally Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, who is currently the CDU’s general secretary and in charge of day-to-day political strategy; and Health Minister Jens Spahn, 38, a sometime Merkel critic who has talked tough on migration and also stands for a more right-wing approach.

Another potential heavyweight contender ruled himself out Wednesday. Armin Laschet, the governor of North-Rhine Westphalia state, said he didn’t want to endanger the work of his state government for the sake of a job in the party.

Asked if he would be prepared to run for chancellor, Laschet replied that “the question doesn’t arise today.”

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