Chancellor Hopefuls Clash in Duel for Post-Merkel Germany

(Bloomberg) -- Emotions were running high in an old brewery in the region where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party stumbled into its worst crisis in decades.

In the town of Apolda in the eastern German state of Thuringia, supporters of the Christian Democratic Union shouted down local media, claiming reporters smeared the state chapter. With beer flowing freely, that anger quickly turned to wild cheers when Friedrich Merz appeared before some 1,300 sympathizers, a day after the race to lead Germany’s most powerful party started.

Chancellor Hopefuls Clash in Duel for Post-Merkel Germany

For the bulk in attendance, Merkel -- and not a rogue decision by local CDU lawmakers to ally with the far-right Alternative for Germany -- was the problem, and Merz is the answer.

The long-time Merkel antagonist “is the only one in the CDU right now who has the courage” to stand up to the German leader, party member Bernhard Koegel said between speeches and folk music in Apolda. “He is the only one who will be able to stop Merkel.”

Crowd Size

About 170 miles west of Apolda, a crowd of about half the size of Merz’s gathered to hear Armin Laschet, a moderate in Merkel’s mold who’s considered the clear front-runner. After officially announcing their respective candidacies to lead the CDU on Tuesday in Berlin, the two events were the first stops to woo the base.

The eight-week contest will culminate in a special convention on April 25. The winner will have the inside track to succeed Merkel and set the trajectory for Europe’s most powerful economy for years to come. The stakes are high for Germany and its partners.

Merz has accused Laschet of representing “continuity,” while pledging to be the only candidate who can take the CDU forward into a post-Merkel era.

Health Minister Jens Spahn, who this week set aside his own leadership ambitions to back Laschet, took issue with Merz’s accusation in a Wednesday night television interview. Spahn’s decision not to run was a bid to unite his more conservative faction with Laschet’s centrist backers and dealt a blow to Merz’s chances.

“I also have a bit of change in me, certainly compared to Friedrich Merz,” said the 39-year-old Spahn, who would be Laschet’s deputy if he wins. He has repeatedly lamented the CDU’s deepest-ever crisis and urged the party to reach out to voters leaked to the Greens and the AfD.

At a barn-like clubhouse of a local rifle association in the remote village of Lennestadt-Kirchveischede, the contrast between the contenders was clear. It was Merz’s fervor and promise of change versus Laschet’s stability and his standing as head of Germany’s largest state.

At the Laschet event, Martin Solbach acknowledged that Merz still has strong support in the rolling hills of rural western Germany even after his long hiatus from politics. But the CDU councilman in the nearby town of Wenden said he supports the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Laschet “can show he has done a lot, which is saying more than his opponent,” who went into business after losing out in a power struggle with Merkel a decade ago, Solbach, 61, said as a traditional brass band played. “Laschet is closer to the base, but he needs to become a little more aggressive.”

In his first speech since announcing his candidacy, Laschet pulled his punches when it came to his CDU political rivals. At best, he indirectly took issue with Merz’s criticism of Merkel’s energy policy, saying any approach in the age of climate change is fraught.

Political Tradition

The performance was unusually tepid for an Ash Wednesday speech, a tradition in German politics. The events, often held in locations off the beaten path, typically offer politicians a platform to address issues in a more emotional way, a departure from staid stump speeches.

Accompanied by a traditional brass band, Laschet took to the stage amid moderate applause from the beer-drinking CDU locals spilled out over benches. Most of Laschet’s attacks were reserved for the far-right AfD, who he said are trying to “break” the country and represent “everything the CDU is against.”

Chancellor Hopefuls Clash in Duel for Post-Merkel Germany

He also took aim at the Greens, criticizing the environmental party for seeking growth-sapping regulations and demonizing Germany’s auto industry.

“Nobody would treat a key industry like the Germans do,” Laschet said. He acknowledged the damage inflicted by the 2015 diesel-cheating scandal, “but that’s not a reason to bad talk a whole industry.”

As a leader, Laschet said he wanted to talk less and deal less with regulation. “I just want to do it,” he said to loud applause.

Merz’s Turf

The most aggressive aspect of the performance was its location in the rolling hills of Sauerland -- a traditional CDU stronghold that also happens to be where Merz is from.

The former CDU caucus leader, meanwhile, went straight to the heart of the crisis in Thuringia. Cow bells rang, and the band played a march as Merz shook the hand of the leader of the state chapter, who’s decision sparked national outrage. The gesture went over well, as did Merz’s combative style.

“Things can’t stay as they are,” said Merz to the raucous crowd. “We have to transfer the enthusiasm here to the outside,” he said, adding that he would welcome having Laschet part of his team.

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