UPDATES WITH COMMENTS FROM LASCHET, ADDS MORE DETAILS, EDITS THROUGHOUT
BERLIN (AA) – Germany's ruling Christian Democrat Union (CDU) elected Armin Laschet as its new party leader on Saturday.
The conservative-liberal politician, widely seen as Chancellor Angela Merkel's favorite for the top seat, received 521 of 992 votes.
Laschet narrowly defeated his rival Friedrich Merz, a conservative hardliner, in a run-off vote.
“I would like to thank you all for the confidence you have placed in me. I’m aware of my responsibility,” Laschet told the delegates after the vote, and promised to do everything for the success of the CDU and its sister party CSU in the upcoming elections.
“I want to do everything to achieve this together throughout this year, have a good result in regional elections, and make sure that in the federal elections, it would be the [CDU/CSU] union, whose chancellor candidate would win the elections,” he said.
The CDU's annual party congress was held online due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
– A ‘moderate’ like Merkel
The new chairman of the Christian Democrats, Armin Laschet, is an experienced politician, and has been the premier of Germany's most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia since 2017.
The 59-year-old is known for his moderate and liberal views, and considered a follower of Merkel's pragmatic and centrist line.
He was a federal lawmaker in 1994-1998, and served as a member of the European Parliament (MEP) from 1999 until 2005.
Laschet is also known for his good ties with the Turkish community and immigrant groups in the country, as he served as the integration minister of North Rhine-Westphalia in 2005-2010.
– German chancellor race
Despite his victory in the battle for party leadership, Laschet will not automatically become the CDU/CSU’s chancellor candidate and a potential successor to Merkel.
The party’s leading figures are expected to hold further talks in the coming weeks, consult with their sister-party CSU, and announce the bloc’s candidate for chancellor by April.
Besides Laschet, the CDU’s popular Health Minister Jens Spahn, and the CSU’s Bavarian premier Markus Soeder are also regarded as possible candidates, as they enjoy widespread support among the conservative voters, according to recent surveys.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who stepped down as party leader in 2018, repeatedly said she is planning to leave politics, and will not be running as the party’s top candidate in federal elections in September.
Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc remains Germany’s strongest political force polling around 36%, but would need a coalition partner to form the country's next government.