Merz, a 66-year-old member of the Bundestag and former MEP, had been the clear favourite to beat opponents Norbert Röttgen and Helge Braun in the election.
Almost 250,000 CDU members took part in the ballot, which saw right-winger Merz walk away with 62.1 percent of the vote.
Röttgen, a centre-righter who heads up the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, secured 25.8 percent of the vote, while Helge Braun, who formerly headed up the chancellery under Angela Merkel, received just 12.1 percent.
Merz will replace Merkel ally Armin Laschet, who was forced to announce his resignation after leading the CDU-CSU bloc to its worst-ever result of 24.1 percent in the September general election.
The election result threw the conservatives into turmoil just as Merkel prepared to retire after 16 years in power.
It also opened the door to the rival SPD – the CDU’s former junior coalition partner – to secure a new coalition with the Greens and FDP and with it, the keys to the chancellery.
“I will of course stand for the party in its entirety and deal with all the issues that our party feels are important,” Merz said as the result of the vote was announced in Berlin.
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Adjusting to being in the opposition “will not happen overnight, especially when we have been in government for so long and so successfully, but we will of course adjust to this role,” he said.
In the run-up to September’s elections, the veteran politician turned heads with an eccentric campaign video that harked back to his first ever election campaign in Hochsauerland in 1994. The wacky footage featured local residents chopping wood in traditional garb, not to mention a talking fox peeping out from behind a tree and saying “Sleep well, Friedrich – and turn out the light” in the voice of Helmut Kohl.
The footage then fasts forward to 2021, where the middle-age Merz praises the shift to a modern Bonn that has developed through digitalisation.
Friedrich Merz, one of Germany's most influential conservatives, just released a new election ad that begins with a clip from his first campaign in 1994 before pivoting to 2021. I'm not sure how I'd even describe the content so take a look. It's somethingpic.twitter.com/0ai5Ms0VEP
— Marcel Dirsus (@marceldirsus) September 23, 2021
Beyond the offbeat campaign materials, the election of Merz marks a decisive shift away from the cautious, centre-leaning politics of the Merkel era.
As a staunch right-winger, he was one of 130 conservative MPs to vote against repealing a law change to make rape in marriage a criminal offence in 1997.
He has also been a vocal opponent of a proposed wealth tax to off-set the impact of the Covid crisis on the poorest in society, and believes in scrapping regulations such as environmental protections to encourage growth in the business sector.
Third time lucky
A millionaire and corporate lawyer by trade, Merz had previously been pushed out of politics altogether by a power struggle with Merkel in the 2000s before returning when she resigned as head of the CDU in 2018.
He has since lost out twice in his quest to become party leader, beaten in both cases by candidates preferring a more centrist course and continuity with the Merkel era.
But it was third time lucky for Merz in a vote that brought in the CDU rank-and-file for the first time in its history, with previous party leaders picked by a much smaller number of senior members.
Almost two-thirds of 400,000 CDU members voted in the postal ballot between December 4th and 16th.
Merz now set to be officially elected at a congress on January 21st and 22nd in Hanover.