Armin Laschet, regional premier who positioned himself as heir to Chancellor Angela Merkel's centrist course, is elected new leader of Christian Democrats, placing him in pole position to become Germany's next chancellor.

Armin Laschet shows a luck coin offered to him by his father, in Berlin, Germany on January 16, 2021.
Armin Laschet shows a luck coin offered to him by his father, in Berlin, Germany on January 16, 2021. (Reuters)

Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right party has elected Armin Laschet, the pragmatic governor of Germany's most populous state, as its new leader, sending a signal of continuity months before an election in which voters will decide who becomes the new chancellor.

Laschet defeated Friedrich Merz, a conservative and one-time Merkel rival, at an online convention on Saturday of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). 

Laschet won 521 votes to Merz's 466; a third candidate, prominent lawmaker Norbert Roettgen, was eliminated in the first round of voting.

Saturday's vote isn't the final word on who will run as the centre-right candidate for chancellor in Germany's September 26 election, but Laschet will either run for chancellor or will have a big say in who does.

Fighting democracy's enemies

Laschet pledged dialogue with all the country's democratic parties, adding that these were times in which democrats had to stand together.

"Especially in these days that we are experiencing in the world, the phrase 'unity, justice and freedom' is more topical than ever," he said with reference to the opening stanza of the German national anthem.

"Let us fight together for these principles against all those who want to endanger them," he concluded.

Laschet to follow Merkel's pragmatic centrism

The first round of voting among some 1,000 delegates produced a virtual tie between Merz and Laschet, with neither winning a majority.

Merz, 65, is a one-time rival of Merkel who stands for a more conservative course but lacks government experience. 

He made his second attempt to win the party leadership after a decade away from front-line politics, following his narrow loss in 2018 to outgoing leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Laschet, 59, is the governor of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional centre-left stronghold where he won election in 2017. 

He is viewed as more in line with Merkel's pragmatic centrism and pointed on Saturday to the value of continuity and moderation.

"We must speak clearly but not polarise," he told delegates. "We must be able to integrate, hold society together."

Laschet said that "there are many people who find Angela Merkel good and only after that the CDU. He added that "we need this trust now as a party" and that "we must work for this trust."

Leadership limbo ends

Saturday's decision ends an 11-month leadership limbo in the CDU after Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had failed to impose her authority on the party, announced her resignation. 

A vote on her successor was delayed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The CDU is part of the Union bloc along with the Bavaria-only Christian Social Union, and the two parties will decide together on the center-right candidate. 

The Union currently has a healthy poll lead, helped by positive reviews of Merkel's handling of the pandemic.

Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005, announced in late 2018 that she wouldn't seek a fifth term. She also stepped down from the CDU leadership.

Source: AP