BERLIN (Reuters) – Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats confirmed centrist Armin Laschet as their new party leader on Friday after a postal ballot, which was required to legally uphold his election by delegates in a digital vote on Saturday.
Laschet, premier of Germany’s most populous state and the self-styled Merkel continuity candidate, won 83.35% of the valid postal votes cast by 1,001 delegates, the CDU said. He beat arch-conservative Friedrich Merz in Saturday’s online ballot by a 521-466 margin.
Laschet must now unite a conservative bloc that has never been entirely comfortable with Merkel’s centrist course, despite her four successive federal election victories.
“The CDU remains Germany’s Europe party,” Laschet told reporters, stressing that he wanted his leadership to be marked by dialogue with the party’s grass roots.
Merkel, Europe’s predominant politician and a consistent winner with German voters since taking office in 2005, has said she will not run for chancellor again in September’s federal election.
Since she stepped down as CDU leader in December 2018, the party has struggled to find a suitable successor.
In choosing Laschet, delegates opted for a candidate more palatable to the left-leaning Greens party, second behind the conservatives in opinion polls and seen as a potential coalition partner come September.
Laschet has taken positions similar to Merkel’s on several key issues like relations with Russia.
In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper to be published on Saturday, he said the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to take Russian natural gas to Europe should go ahead.
European Union lawmakers passed a resolution on Thursday calling for the bloc to stop completion of the pipeline in response to the arrest of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
“The question whether gas should reach us by land or by sea is unrelated (to Navalny’s arrest),” Laschet told the newspaper, adding that he condemned Navalny’s arrest in the strongest terms.
Merkel said last year that Laschet, 59, had “the tools” to run for chancellor, the closest she has come to endorsing anyone.
But even as party leader, Laschet is not guaranteed to be the chancellor candidate for the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
CSU leader Markus Soeder has called for the CDU/CSU alliance, the “Union”, to decide on its chancellor candidate only after state elections in mid-March, leaving open the possibility he could run if Laschet stumbles.
(Writing by Paul Carrel, editing by Thomas Escritt and David Gregorio)