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Analysis: Merkel's success overshadowed by ugly battle to succeed her

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) are riding high in opinion polls but their popularity masks serious unease among senior party officials about damaging internal divisions triggered by a delay in voting for a new leader.

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures during the weekly cabinet meeting in Berlin, Germany, October 28, 2020. Kay Nietfeld/Pool via REUTERS

A decision by the CDU top brass on Monday to postpone a Dec. 4 party congress to choose a new leader has stoked internal divisions, with one candidate - Friedrich Merz - saying elements of the CDU establishment don’t want him to get the job.

The upshot is the CDU faces a bitter leadership battle that risks dragging on until the spring at least, when the new leader will only have a brief period to emerge from Merkel’s shadow.

Top CDU officials, who said they delayed the congress due to the coronavirus pandemic, are worried about party cohesion and discipline - usually a strength - going into election year 2021.

“Some are worried that a defeated (leadership) candidate will not be able to rest easy after the election,” said one top party official, adding that Merz had strengthened these fears by crying foul over the postponement of the party congress.

At stake is the leadership of Europe’s biggest economy in the era after Merkel, who has vowed not to run again at elections due next autumn after looming large on the European stage since 2005 and proving a winner with German voters.

An INSA poll for Bild newspaper released on Tuesday put support for Merkel’s conservative alliance of the CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party on 35.5%, far ahead of the Greens in second place on 17.5% and the Social Democrats (SPD) on 14.5%.

The CDU’s popularity has been boosted by Merkel’s competent handling of the pandemic, with far lower infection rates in Germany than in neighbouring countries.

But outgoing CDU chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has warned the party’s three leadership candidates - Merz, Armin Laschet and Norbert Roettgen - against “ruinous competition” after a new leader is elected, party officials say.

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The rivalry is already getting nasty and personal.

Merz told Reuters Monday’s decision by the executive committee to postpone the congress was “against the party base”.

He also told the newspaper Die Welt he had “clear indications” that Laschet “got out the message that he needs more time to improve his performance”.

Michael von Abercon, a Merz ally and CDU lawmaker, said efforts by Laschet supporters to dismiss as “conspiracy theories” the idea that the CDU party establishment doesn’t want Merz as leader show how “raw their nerves are”.

The CDU’s executive committee - and Laschet - insist that the pandemic means it would be inappropriate for the party’s 1,001 delegates to hold their congress as planned in Stuttgart on Dec. 4.

Opinion polls show Merz is more popular with CDU members than Laschet, who is premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, and Roettgen, a foreign policy expert. But the party elite, to whom the delegates are close, favour Laschet.

The German constitution allows parties to hold online meetings but votes to elect officials must be in person.

This could be done by a postal vote, but as none of the three CDU leadership candidates is likely to win outright in the first round, a second vote would likely be needed - meaning this option would be protracted.

“You’re not going to avoid holding a normal party congress,” said one CDU official. “Everything else is difficult.”

Rising infection rates mean a regular CDU congress might not be possible until well into next year. Germany must hold its next federal election by Oct. 24, 2021 at the latest.

The left-leaning SPD has already picked Olaf Scholz, who is finance minister in Merkel’s grand coalition, as its chancellor candidate. The SPD does not want to renew the awkward right-left ruling alliance.

“Unlike the SPD, the Christian Democrats believe in getting and keeping power,” said Josef Joffe, editor-publisher of weekly Die Zeit. “Hence, they maintain discipline like a good army.”

He said postponing the congress would have unpredictable consequences but “if Germany restores public health and growth, the next chancellor will hail from the CDU/CSU”.

Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Giles Elgood