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Germany: Party picks conservative leader for post-Merkel era

Delegates from the party of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed prominent conservative Friedrich Merz as the Christian Democratic Union's new leader Saturday as the center-right party seeks to redefine itself.

Merz received 94.6% of the vote from 983 delegates who cast ballots during an online party convention. The vote was mostly a formality since he won 62.1% in balloting among the party membership in December, defeating two centrist contenders.

In a livestreamed speech to the delegates, he took several digs at new Chancellor Olaf Scholz for, as Merz put it, not immediately engaging with the U.S. and Russia after taking office and not mentioning the country’s armed forces in his first speech in parliament.

Christian Democratic Party (CDU) newly elected Chairman Friedrich Merz shakes hands with outgoing Chairman Armin Laschet during a virtual party congress at the party headquarters, in Berlin, Germany, January 22, 2022. (Hannibal HanschkePool via AP)

For legal reasons, Saturday’s result must be confirmed by mail ballot.

After losing the September election with its worst-ever national result and the chancellorship Merkel held for 16 years, the CDU is now Germany's biggest opposition party. Merkel’s centrist approach won repeated reelection but left some conservatives grumbling that the party had lost its clear profile with voters.

A fight last year for the nomination for chancellor between former party leader Armin Laschet and Markus Soeder, the leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, exposed divisions and played a role in the party's dismal result of 24.1%.

Christian Democratic Party (CDU) designated Chairman Friedrich Merz speaks during a virtual party congress at the party headquarters, in Berlin, Germany, January 22, 2022. (Hannibal HanschkePool via AP)

The two-party Union bloc narrowly lost to Scholz's center-left Social Democrats.

Merz, 66, said the party needed to recover its unity and clarify its stance in a new platform. He said the Christian Democratic Union had been through a “severe defeat” but that “we have not lost our confidence in ourselves.”

Merz said the CDU would position itself not just as opposition but as “the government of tomorrow.”

Christian Democratic Party (CDU) newly elected Chairman Friedrich Merz congratulates newly elected General Secretary of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Mario Czaja, during a virtual party congress at the party headquarters, in Berlin, Germany, January 22, 2022. (Hannibal HanschkePool via AP)

The Christian Democrats have been a pillar of Germany's post-World War II constitutional democracy, supplying chancellors Konrad Adenauer, who led the country into NATO, Helmut Kohl, the architect of German reunification in 1990, and Merkel, the country's first woman leader.

Merz has experience of being an opposition leader. He led the center-right group in parliament from 2000 to 2002, when Merkel pushed him out of that job. He left parliament in 2009, later practicing as a lawyer and heading the supervisory board of investment manager BlackRock’s German branch.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz, center, joins SPD party leaders Saskia Esken and Lars Klingbeil, from right, for a group photo at the start of the SPD Executive Committee's closed-door meeting in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. In view of the four upcoming state elections this year, the SPD's top candidates are also taking part in the closed meeting. (Bernd von Jutrczenkadpa via AP)

Christian Democratic Party (CDU) outgoing Chairman Armin Laschet gestures as he speaks during a virtual party congress at the party headquarters, in Berlin, Germany, January 22, 2022. (Hannibal HanschkePool via AP)

Christian Democratic Party (CDU) designated Chairman Friedrich Merz hands over a tablet to outgoing Chairman Armin Laschet as a gift, during a virtual party congress at the party headquarters, in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, January 22, 2022. (Hannibal HanschkePool via AP)