New CDU leader lags Bavarian premier in race to succeed Merkel

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BERLIN (Reuters) - Armin Laschet, the new leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats, has yet to convince voters he would be a better choice than Bavarian premier Markus Soeder to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel after elections in September, a poll showed on Monday.

Centrist Laschet positioned himself on Saturday as the man to heal divisions among Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) after party delegates chose him to lead the party, putting him in pole position to succeed her as chancellor.

However, 36% of voters would still prefer Soeder to be chancellor candidate for Merkel’s conservative alliance, a survey of 2,000 voters by pollster Forsa for broadcaster RTL/ntv conducted after Saturday’s vote showed. Laschet followed on 21%.

Soeder leads the Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavarian sister party to the CDU. Together they form the conservative “Union”. Usually - but not always - their candidate for chancellor comes from the CDU.

The Union has twice fielded a CSU candidate. Both lost. But the narrow 521-466 margin of Laschet’s runoff victory for the CDU leadership over arch-conservative Friedrich Merz highlights the challenge Laschet faces in uniting the alliance.

Despite Merkel’s four successive federal election victories, the Union has never been entirely comfortable with her centrist course.

“For the CDU, the close vote means that tensions within the party about its fundamental direction will continue,” JP Morgan analyst Greg Fuzesi said. “A large section of the party clearly wanted to shift in a conservative direction.”

Soeder, 54, has shifted from the right towards the moderate centre of late. He plays coy about his ambitions - “My place is in Bavaria” has been his repeated refrain.

However, Soeder has also said the CDU and CSU will decide together who should run for chancellor, and called on the Union to decide on its candidate only after state elections in mid-March.

Reporting by Paul Carrel; Editing by Angus MacSwan