Meet the German Conservative Who Could Be Key to Ousting Scholz

Two years out from Germany’s next national election, the debate about who the opposition conservatives should pick to run against Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz is heating up.

(Bloomberg) — Two years out from Germany’s next national election, the debate about who the opposition conservatives should pick to run against Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz is heating up.

As chairman of the Christian Democrats, Friedrich Merz would typically be a shoe-in as the candidate for the CDU/CSU alliance. With a healthy lead in the polls and the ruling coalition hamstrung by infighting, he should be relishing the prospect of unseating Scholz in the fall of 2025.

But the 67-year-old lawyer — a former BlackRock Inc. director and a champion of the party’s pro-business wing — is seen by many as a relic of a back-slapping, right-wing old-boys’ club that alienates younger generations of voters.

That has directed attention toward Hendrik Wuest, an up-and-coming regional politician who could take the CDU/CSU, which has run Europe’s biggest economy for the bulk of the postwar period, in a different direction.

Wuest, the premier of Germany’s most-populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, presides over a region of 18 million that is about the same size and population as the Netherlands.

Although relatively inexperienced — the fresh-faced 48-year-old has only been in office since October 2021 and has never served at the federal level — he won plaudits for comfortably holding the traditional Social Democratic bastion for the conservatives in a state election last year. In a sign that he’s flexible enough to work with political and ideological rivals, he rules in a coalition with the Greens.

On the back of his electoral success, Wuest was named Germany’s “Politician of the Year” for 2023 by magazine politik&kommunikation, following in the footsteps of previous winners such as Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, both former Greens leaders.

“Wuest reflects a new image of the young, likable conservative,” Cornelia Woll, president of the Berlin-based Hertie School and a professor of international political economy, told Bloomberg. “This is good for the CDU, which is struggling with its own rejuvenation.”

Wuest’s alliance with the Greens in North Rhine-Westphalia could be key to his continued success, according to Woll, as it “gives him the opportunity to tap into younger voter groups.”

Moreover, if the conservatives were to take back the federal chancellery, they would probably need to form an alliance that includes the Greens, who are currently polling at around 15%.

Such a two-way coalition – known in Germany as black-green after the party colors — has never before been in power.

Wuest has declined to comment publicly on whether he’s weighing a run. If he were to make a bid in 2025, he would first have to persuade members of the CDU/CSU bloc that he’s the best candidate to take on Scholz, who came from behind to win in 2021.

That won’t be easy. Merz remains a force among the the party’s grass-roots members, and particularly in his — and Wuest’s — home state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Merz has said a decision on the candidate won’t be made until late summer 2024 at the earliest. On Sunday, he indicated in an interview with public broadcaster ARD that it could be delayed until after three regional elections in eastern Germany in the fall of next year.

What may work in Wuest’s favor is Merz’s enduring unpopularity among German voters — even those within his own camp. The corporate lawyer and hobbyist pilot attracted widespread criticism last month by appearing to open the door to cooperation with the AfD — a taboo in German politics.

While he later sought to row back the comments, he nevertheless appears ill-equipped to stem the flow of voters to the anti-immigrant party, which has surged into second place behind the CDU/CSU in the polls.

Beyond Merz and Wuest, Bavaria’s pugnacious premier, CSU Chairman Markus Soeder, also has a genuine shot at securing the candidacy. The 56-year-old made a strong push before the 2021 election only to be thwarted by then-CDU Chairman Armin Laschet, Wuest’s predecessor in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The messy dispute was seen as damaging to Laschet’s campaign and the conservative alliance will be keen to avoid a repeat.

An Insa poll for Bild newspaper published this month showed that 29% of those surveyed believe Soeder would have the best chance of winning the next election for the conservative alliance. Wuest scored 18% and Merz 13%.

In a separate poll for public broadcaster ZDF, 69% said they didn’t think Merz is equipped to run Europe’s biggest economy. Fully half of CDU/CSU voters surveyed agreed.

Regional elections in Bavaria and Hesse on Oct. 8 are likely to influence the race for the candidacy. Poor results for the conservatives would hurt Soeder and Merz and possibly boost younger pretenders like Wuest.

He’s well positioned for a national run simply by dint of leading North Rhine-Westphalia, according to Woll of the Hertie school. The post is “a good school for the chancellor’s office” given that the state is grappling with many of the same challenges facing Germany at large, she said.

These include “a changing industrial landscape, the challenge of better integrating urban and rural areas, an outdated infrastructure and demographic change.”

One factor that could dent Wuest’s prospects, however, is that he wasn’t always seen as a moderate. According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, during his stint as secretary general of the regional party, he was considered an “accomplished thug and a hard-nosed ankle biter” with views well to the right of where he now purports to stand.

A keen hunter, Wuest told the taz newspaper in 2007 that “I’d be lying if I said that taking trophies on the hunt wasn’t fun.”

Ursula Muench, director of the academy for political education in Tutzing, Bavaria, said Wuest appears to have accepted that “a certain open-mindedness and modernity” is required in German politics, given that parties need coalition partners to forge a viable majority.

“That’s positive for the CDU, but there are also many who would say he’s a bit too adaptable,” Muench told Bloomberg. “So you can read that in different ways.”

During a visit with Wuest to a wind farm last week, Scholz was asked whether he was standing next to his likely challenger at the next election.

“I’m a lot of things but I’m not the spokesman for the CDU,” the German leader said with a grin. “So I think you should check with them in Berlin to get an answer on this.”

–With assistance from Arne Delfs, Michael Nienaber, Patrick Donahue and Chris Reiter.

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