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Pragmatic German governor Armin Laschet elected to lead Angela Merkel's party

"We must speak clearly but not polarize," said Armin Laschet. "We must be able to integrate, hold society together."
Image: CDU party elects its new leader in Berlin
Newly Christian Democratic Union party leader Armin Laschet will succeed the long serving Angela Merkel.POOL / Reuters

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-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 Saturday of the Christian Democratic Union.

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

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

There had been no clear favorite going into Saturday's vote at an online convention of the CDU. A first round of voting among some 1,000 delegates produced a virtual tie between Merz and Laschet, with neither winning a majority.

Laschet, 59, is the governor of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia — a traditional center-left stronghold where he won election in 2017. He is viewed as more in line with Merkel's pragmatic centrism, and pointed Saturday to the value of continuity and moderation.

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

The decision ends an 11-month leadership limbo in the CDU after once favored Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, failed to impose her authority on the party and announced her resignation. A vote on her successor was delayed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Laschet's win won't be the final word on who runs to succeed Merkel as chancellor.

The CDU is part of the Union bloc along with the Bavaria-only Christian Social Union, and the two parties will together decide on the center-right candidate. The Union currently has a healthy poll lead, helped by positive reviews of Merkel's handling of the pandemic.

CSU leader Markus Soeder, the governor of Bavaria, is widely considered a potential candidate after gaining in political stature during the pandemic. Some also consider Health Minister Jens Spahn, running to be the deputy CDU leader under Laschet, a possible contender.

Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005, announced in late 2018 that she wouldn't seek a fifth term.