BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right party chose Armin Laschet, the pragmatic governor of Germany’s most populous state, as its new leader Saturday. The choice sent a signal of continuity months before an election in which voters will decide who becomes the new chancellor.
Laschet will have to build unity in the Christian Democratic Union, Germany's strongest party, after beating more conservative rival Friedrich Merz. And he will need to plunge straight into an electoral marathon that culminates with the Sept. 26 national vote for the next parliament.
The decision by party delegates on Saturday isn’t the final word on who will run as the centre-right candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor, but Laschet will either run himself or have a big say in who does. He said the candidate will be chosen in April.
Laschet, 59, was elected in 2017 as governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, a traditional centre-left stronghold.
He governs the region in a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats, the CDU’s traditional ally, but he would likely be able to work smoothly with a more liberal partner, too. Current polls point to the environmentalist Greens as a likely key to power in the September election.
Laschet pointed Saturday to the value of continuity and moderation, and cited the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump as an example of where polarization can lead.
"Trust is what keeps us going and what has been broken in America," he told delegates before they voted to make him him the Christian Democratic Union's leader. "By polarizing, sowing discord and distrust, and systematically lying, a president has destroyed stability and trust."
"We must speak clearly but not polarize," Laschet said. "We must be able to integrate, hold society together."
He said that the party needs "the continuity of success" and "will only win if we remain strong in the middle of society."
Laschet said that "there are many people who, above all, find Angela Merkel good and only after that the CDU." He added that "we need this trust now as a party" and must work to gain it.
Laschet beat Merz, a former rival of Merkel who was making his second attempt in recent years to win the CDU leadership, by 521 votes to 466. A third candidate, prominent lawmaker Norbert Roettgen, was eliminated in a first round of voting.
Merz's sizeable support suggests that a strong contingent would like a sharper conservative profile after the Merkel years. Merkel has led Germany since 2005 but said over two years ago that she wouldn't seek a fifth term as chancellor.
Merkel, 66, has enjoyed enduring popularity with voters as she steered Germany and Europe through a series of crises. But she repeatedly abandoned orthodox conservative policies, for example by accelerating Germany's exit from nuclear energy and ending military conscription.
Her decision in 2015 to allow in large numbers of migrants caused major tensions on the centre-right and strengthened the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
Saturday's vote ends a nearly year-long limbo since outgoing leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who narrowly beat Merz in 2018 to succeed Merkel as CDU leader but failed to impose her authority, announced her resignation. A vote on her successor was delayed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Laschet called for unity after Saturday's vote and said Merz remains "an important personality for us."
"All the questions that will face us after the pandemic need a broad consensus in our party," he said. "And we will need this consensus for all the elections that are ahead of us, too. Everyone will be against us."
Merz didn't seek another post in the party leadership but tweeted later Saturday that he had "offered" to become economy minister in the current government, a job held by Merkel ally Peter Altmaier. The government swiftly said Merkel plans no reshuffle.
Laschet, a miner's son who served as a member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2005, shouldn't expect much of a honeymoon in his new job. In addition to the national election, Germany is holding six state elections this year, the first two in mid-March.
The CDU and its Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union, together make up the Union bloc and will decide on the candidate. "We will find a candidate for chancellor together in April," Laschet told ZDF television.
The Union currently has a healthy poll lead, helped by support for 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, who supported Laschet and was elected as one of his deputies, a possible contender.
Polls have shown Soeder’s ratings outstripping those of Saturday’s CDU candidates. Laschet has garnered mixed reviews in the pandemic, particularly as a vocal advocate of loosening restrictions after last year’s first phase.
"It's very good that a year-long discussion process is over," Soeder said. "I am sure that Armin Laschet and I will find a joint, wise and united solution to all other pending questions."
Saturday’s result in an online vote will now be officially endorsed in a postal ballot. That is expected to be a formality but is required by German law.