Germany's conservatives threw their weight on Tuesday behind Armin Laschet, a cautious centrist, as their candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor in a September national election instead of his more popular Bavarian rival.
Markus Soeder, leader of Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), conceded defeat in his week-long battle with Laschet, chairman of the larger Christian Democrats (CDU), to lead their alliance, dubbed 'the Union', into the Sept. 26 election.
Soeder's decision came after senior CDU members backed Laschet, 60, at a tense meeting overnight, when they fretted about the bloc's future without Merkel, who has led them to four consecutive victories but is stepping down after the election.
"The die is cast - Armin Laschet will be the Union's candidate for chancellor," Soeder told reporters in Munich.
"In the name of the CSU and personally, I wish Armin Laschet success for the difficult task that lies ahead of him and offer him the support of the CSU," added Soeder.
By backing Laschet, seen as lacking in charisma and muddled in his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDU elite prioritised their party's dominance within the conservative bloc, apparently preferring even the risk of election defeat over having to cede power to their Bavarian junior partners.
In a blow to Laschet, a Forsa poll released late on Tuesday showed the Greens overtaking the conservatives, jumping 5 points to 28% while his bloc slumped by 7 points to 21%. read more
An ARD Deutschlandtrend survey last Friday had found 72% of conservative voters in Germany, Europe's biggest economy, considered Soeder, 54, better suited to become chancellor.
APPEAL FOR UNITY
As chancellor candidate, Laschet faces an uphill battle to win over voters unimpressed by the government's messy handling of the pandemic.
On Tuesday Laschet urged the conservative bloc to unite.
"The CDU will not win this election without the CSU, and the opposite is also true," he told a news conference, in which he also stressed the need to reduce Germany's public debt once the pandemic has ended.
Many conservatives are nervous about their chances of holding onto power in September without Merkel, who congratulated Laschet on becoming the candidate.
"I want to start a new chapter after Merkel, not just more of the same, but we will preserve the part that has done Germans good," Laschet told ZDF television.
Although widely seen as the candidate likely to continue Merkel's legacy, analysts said he would not be able to match her commanding position, built up over 16 years, on the international stage.
"In terms of foreign policy, Angela Merkel leaves big shoes for her successor to fill," said Thomas Gitzel, economist at VP Bank. "Armin Laschet will not be able to fill them and probably won't want to. The future focus will be on domestic policy."
The Greens, with no internal wrangling, named their co-leader Annalena Baerbock on Monday as their first candidate for chancellor in the party's 40-year history. read more
Baerbock, who has promised change if she becomes chancellor read more , tweeted her congratulations to Laschet on his candidacy, adding: "I'm counting on a fair election campaign for the leadership of this country."
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