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'We can't accept refugees here,' says conservative hoping to succeed Merkel as chancellor

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Shift: Friedrich Merz of the Christian Democratic Union. Photo: Reuters/Christian Mang/File Photo

Shift: Friedrich Merz of the Christian Democratic Union. Photo: Reuters/Christian Mang/File Photo

REUTERS

Shift: Friedrich Merz of the Christian Democratic Union. Photo: Reuters/Christian Mang/File Photo

In a beer hall in eastern Germany, locals toasted the man they are counting on to see out Chancellor Angela Merkel and her brand of liberal conservatism.

Friedrich Merz, whose line on Syrian asylum-seekers is "we can't accept you here", goes down well with his audience as he aims to succeed Ms Merkel as leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and possibly the country. Mr Merz's promise to shift the CDU to the right was popular at a party rally in the town of Apolda.

He is locked in a battle for the party's soul with Armin Laschet, a centrist offering continuity after Ms Merkel steps down in time for the next election, due by October 2021.

The CDU plans to pick a new leader at a special congress on April 25, with Mr Merz currently leading Mr Laschet in the polls by 35pc to 24pc.

At stake is Germany's reputation - personified by Ms Merkel - as Europe's champion of the post-war liberal order, an issue now being blurred by the CDU's domestic preoccupation with the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Straight-talking Mr Merz, a 64-year-old lawyer, offers a socially conservative, pro-business pitch that appeals to the CDU's core of mainly western, Catholic men who see Ms Merkel - a Protestant from the east - as an anomaly. Earlier this month, Mr Merz had a message for Syrian refugees who may be hoping to leave Turkey: "There is no point in coming to Germany."

That strikes a chord in Thuringia, where Ms Merkel's decision in 2015 to open Germany's borders to a million refugees fleeing war in the Middle East fuelled the rise of the AfD.

Mr Laschet (59) is making a more inclusive offer and last month won the support of Health Minister Jens Spahn, who appeals to some on the CDU's more conservative wing, as a running mate.

Germany's most successful political party since the end of World War II, the CDU is struggling to find a way forward after many voters have fled to the far-right AfD and the leftist Greens.

Ms Merkel's supporters, who back Mr Laschet, premier of Germany's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, fear that any shift to the right will cost the CDU dearly at the ballot box. They point to the Greens, now the second most popular party in opinion polls, as the main threat to the CDU, and say the conservatives should stick to the middle-ground strategy that has handed Ms Merkel's party four straight election victories.

But Mr Merz's supporters say Germany needs a distinctively conservative party to counter the AfD, to which the CDU has lost most voters.

Christian Sitter of the Werte Union, an ultra-conservative grouping in Ms Merkel's conservative bloc, said: "Merkel has been more interested in surviving as chancellor than in uniting the party.

"To survive, she cut wishy-washy deals with the (centre-left) SPD and silenced the conservative wing.

"Now we are saying we want to be heard again."

The debate over what the CDU stands for and its position vis-à-vis the AfD came to a head in Thuringia last month, when CDU politicians sided with the AfD to elect a new state premier, shattering the post-war consensus among established parties of shunning the far-right.

So great was the resulting controversy that the newly elected premier quit after a few days and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who defeated Mr Merz to win the CDU leadership in December 2018, abandoned her ambitions to run for chancellor.

Her authority crushed, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer decided to step down.

"We have two choices: more of the same or a new start," Mr Merz said to loud applause in Apolda. "And we choose a new start."

Irish Independent