September 26, 2023


BERLIN — The road to victory in German elections runs through Kyiv.

That seems to be the view of opposition leader Friedrich Merz, who stole a march on Chancellor Olaf Scholz this week by visiting the Ukrainian capital — something the government chief has not done since Russia launched its invasion.

Merz’s meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy won him blanket media coverage and put him at the center of political debate in the run-up to two state elections that pose an early test for his leadership of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU).

The visit on Tuesday also allowed the conservative 66-year-old lawyer to adopt a statesmanlike role as he seeks to establish his authority, having taken over the CDU leadership following the party’s crushing general election defeat last year.

Merz’s victory was a remarkable comeback, some two decades after he lost an internal power struggle to Angela Merkel, who went on to serve for 16 years as chancellor. But Merz — who is a gifted public speaker but widely seen as cold and aloof — faces an even bigger challenge in trying to win over the broader electorate.

Although he and his party were part of a broad — and now discredited — political consensus that cultivated close ties with Moscow, Merz has tried to push a more hawkish line than Scholz since the war in Ukraine began. In particular, he has urged the chancellor to supply Kyiv with heavy weapons — a stance the government has at least partially adopted in recent days by agreeing to provide anti-aircraft tanks.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (Up) listens to the speech of the leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Friedrich Merz | Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Pictures tweeted by Merz from the visit made him look more like a chancellor than a mere opposition party leader, as he met with Zelenskyy in front of the German flag. On Thursday, Merz even claimed credit for Zelenskyy ending a diplomatic snub of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier after the Ukrainian leader invited Steinmeier and Scholz to visit. Ukrainian officials see Steinmeier as a symbol of Berlin’s previous soft line on Russia.

“I am very grateful to President Zelenskyy for accepting my request to invite the federal president. The way is clear for personal meetings of the federal president and the federal chancellor with President Zelenskyy in Kyiv,” Merz said in a tweet that also sounded like a challenge to both men.

That move sparked fresh criticism from members of Scholz’s governing coalition, who had already accused Merz of trying to score domestic political points with his trip.

“Arrogance, redefined. Or: How do I undermine my visit with just one tweet?” Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the chair of the Bundestag’s defense committee and a member of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), responded acidly.

Sawsan Chebli, a prominent member of Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats, declared: “Isn’t there anyone around Merz who advises him and says: Just leave it! I almost feel a little sorry for him.”

Merz’s camp insisted the trip was about showing solidarity with Kyiv and hearing directly from Ukrainian officials about what they need from Berlin and other Western allies as they fight to repel Russia’s aggression.

“[Zelenskyy and I] had a very detailed and very long conversation, well over an hour,” Merz told reporters in Kyiv, sounding like a senior government official as he declared he would “inform the chancellor in detail about this conversation after my return.”

But the visit was an unusual move for an opposition leader in the midst of regional election campaigns, where rallies in town squares and visits to local businesses are the more normal fare.

The stakes in the states

The CDU leads the government in the two states that are up for grabs this month and anything less than holding onto both would be a blow for Merz and his party.

The CDU looks assured of victory in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein this Sunday but faces a much tougher fight a week later for the bigger prize — North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. The CDU and SPD are neck-and-neck in the polls in North-Rhine Westphalia, which is also Merz’s home state.

The party’s fortunes in the two elections depend to a large extent on two members of its younger generation of leaders, both in their 40s — Daniel Günther, the premier of Schleswig-Holstein, and Hendrik Wüst, his recently installed counterpart in North-Rhine Westphalia.

But old stager Merz is playing an active role in the campaign in his home state. And even though the elections have been dominated by issues like energy prices, housing, education, and law and order, he has been injecting a chunk of foreign policy into the debate.

Friedrich Merz, head of the opposition German Christian Democrats | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

His focus on Ukraine and his visit to Kyiv have allowed him to train his sights on one of Scholz’s weak spots: The chancellor has been accused at home and abroad of being too hesitant in responding to Ukrainian calls for more weapons and of having communicated poorly about the reasons for his reluctance.

While many Western leaders — from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — have visited Kyiv in recent weeks, Scholz has justified his decision not to make the trip so far partly by citing the snub of Steinmeier. He has also insisted that Berlin is providing large amounts of economic and other support to Kyiv, while being careful to avoid escalating the war into a wider conflict.

Merz has argued that Scholz has been missing an important opportunity to speak to Zelenskyy in person. “You can’t do those conversations on the phone. You can’t do them with video conferencing either. You have to have those conversations in person,” he told ZDF television on Tuesday night.

During a campaign rally on Monday in Olpe, a small town in North Rhine-Westphalia some 60 kilometers east of Cologne, Merz devoted a large part of his speech to Ukraine, arguing that Scholz’ government was showing “a lack in communication and a lack in strategy” in its support for Kyiv.

“All the political decisions that are pending in the coming days and weeks are also about the freedom of our country,” Merz declared.

Laurenz Gehrke contributed reporting.


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