On Saturday, Centrist Armin Laschet placed himself as the man to repair differences within the Christian Democrats of Angela Merkel after they elected him to head the party, placing him in a pole position to replace her as the chancellor of Germany. In a ballot of CDU party delegates, Laschet, premier of the country's most populous state and the self-styled Merkel continuity candidate, defeated arch-conservative Friedrich Merz. Since taking office in 2005, Merkel, the predominant European politician and steady acquirer of the German votes, has said she won't run for chancellor again in the forthcoming federal election. The party has failed to find a fitting replacement since she stepped down as CDU leader in Dec. 2018. Delegates opted for a more palatable nominee for the left-leaning Greens party, second behind the Conservatives in opinion polling and seen as a possible coalition ally in September, in selecting Laschet, premier of the Netherlands-sized state of North-Rhine Westphalia. But the tight 521-466 margin of his runoff win over Merz highlights the difficulty Laschet faces in uniting a conservative coalition that has never been completely comfortable with Merkel's centrist path, amid her four consecutive federal election victories. Laschet encouraged political powers in his victory speech to unite against a wave of extremism that, along with the coronavirus pandemic, had spread through Western nations. CDU factions suspect Merkel of leaving a vacuum to the right of the party for Germany's far-right alternative - and eventually, conspiracy theorists denying the truth of the coronavirus pandemic - to move in, weakening the political order of Germany. Last year, Merkel said that Laschet, 59, had "the tools" to run for chancellor, the nearest she got to endorsing anybody. But even as leader — binding results of Saturday's vote on Jan. 22 are predicted — Laschet is not sure to run for the chancellorship, as anyone else may also be elected by the party. Health Minister Jens Spahn credited with a strong response to the coronavirus outbreak, and Markus Soeder, Bavaria's influential premier and leader of the CSU, the region's sister party to the CDU, are possible alternatives candidates. Green Party leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck said Laschet had to redefine the CDU and set a path for the environmentally friendly transformation of the economy. Opinion polls send about 36% of votes to Merkel's conservative bloc, led by the Greens on around 20% and the SPD on 16%. Merz, who narrowly lost a CDU leadership bid in 2018, told Reuters he had given Laschet the chance to enter the new government as Minister of Economy. A Merkel spokesperson said there was no cabinet reshuffle expected. Merkel was replaced by her protegee Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as party leader in 2018, who failed in the post and announced she would step down last year.
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