German opposition leader plays Ukraine card ahead of elections – POLITICO

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BERLIN – The road to victory in the German elections leads through Kyiv.

That appears to be opposition leader Friedrich Merz, who got ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz this week with a visit to the Ukrainian capital — something the prime minister hasn’t done since the Russian invasion began.

Merz’s meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave him widespread media coverage and placed him at the center of political debate ahead of two state elections that represent an early test of his centre-right Christian Democrat (CDU) leadership.

Tuesday’s visit also allowed the conservative 66-year-old lawyer to adopt a statesmanlike role as he seeks to establish his authority after assuming leadership of the CDU following the party’s crushing defeat in last year’s general election.

Merz’s win was a remarkable comeback some two decades after he lost an internal power struggle against Angela Merkel, who later served as chancellor for 16 years. But Merz – who is a gifted public speaker but is widely seen as cold and distant – faces an even greater challenge in trying to win over the broad electorate.

Although he and his party were part of a broad — and now discredited — political consensus that shared close ties with Moscow, Merz has sought to adopt a more combative line than Scholz since the start of the Ukraine war. In particular, he called on the chancellor to supply Kyiv with heavy weapons – a stance that the government has at least partially adopted in recent days by promising to provide anti-aircraft tanks.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (above) listens to the speech of the chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Friedrich Merz | Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

pictures Merz’s tweet from the visit made him look more like a chancellor than a mere opposition leader as he met with Zelenskyy in front of the German flag. On Thursday, Merz even claimed credit for Zelenskyy ending a diplomatic snub to 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 complying with my request to invite the Federal President. The way is clear for the Federal President and the Federal Chancellor to meet President Selenskyj in Kyiv in person,” said Merz in one tweet that also sounded like a challenge for both men.

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

“Arrogance redefined. Or: How do I undermine my visit with just one tweet?” Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chairwoman of the Bundestag Defense Committee and member of the FDP, answered angry.

Sawsan Chebli, a prominent member of Scholz’s centre-left Social Democrats, explained: “Is there nobody near Merz who advises him and says: just leave it alone! 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 what they need from Berlin and other Western allies as they fight to repel Russia’s aggression.

“[Zelenskyy and I] 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 said he would “brief the chancellor in detail on this conversation upon my return.”

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

Operations in the States

The CDU leads the government in the two states up for election this month, and anything but sticking to both would be a blow to Merz and his party.

The CDU looks confident of victory this Sunday in northern Schleswig-Holstein, but faces a much tougher battle for the bigger prize a week later – North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. CDU and SPD are Head to head in the polls in North Rhine-Westphalia, the homeland of Merz.

The fate of the party in the two elections depends in large part on two members of its younger generation of leaders, both in their 40s – Daniel Günther, the prime minister of Schleswig-Holstein, and Hendrik Wüst, his recently installed counterpart in North Rhine-Westphalia.

But old master Merz is also actively involved in the election campaign in his home country. And although the election was dominated by issues such as energy prices, housing, education and law and order, he brought a piece of foreign policy into the debate.

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

With his focus on Ukraine and his visit to Kyiv, he targeted one of Scholz’s weaknesses: the chancellor has been accused at home and abroad of reacting too hesitantly to Ukrainian demands for more weapons and of having poorly communicated the reasons for his reluctance .

While many Western heads of state and government – from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen – have visited Kyiv in recent weeks, Scholz justified his decision not to make the trip so far, partly by snubbing Steinmeier. He has also insisted that Berlin provide large amounts of economic and other support to Kyiv, while being careful not to allow the war to escalate into a major conflict.

Merz has argued that Scholz missed an important opportunity to speak to Zelenskyi in person. “You can’t have these conversations over the phone. You can’t do them with video conferencing either. You have to have these conversations in person,” he said told ZDF television on Tuesday evening.

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

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

Laurenz Gehrke contributed to the reporting. German opposition leader plays Ukraine card ahead of elections - POLITICO

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