Armin Laschet elected as CDU leader, paving way for 'Post-Merkel Era'
BERLIN - Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on Saturday elected Armin Laschet as its party chairman after an online vote, which is widely seen as a crucial step paving the way for the era after Angela Merkel retires from her post.
Laschet, 59, is the governor of Germany's most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia.
In a run-off, Laschet garnered 521 votes beating the pro-business conservative Friedrich Merz, who got 466 votes.
A third candidate, foreign policy expert Norbert Roettgen, was knocked out in the first round of the voting.
To make the online election legitimate, a postal vote would follow the digital vote, and the formal recognition will be on Jan. 22, according to a schedule given by the CDU.
Laschet was considered by local media a close ally and a continuity candidate of Merkel, pursuing a centrist course in the party.
When Merkel faced strong opposition and criticism from parts of her party during the refugee crisis in 2015, Laschet remained supportive of her policies.
Laschet said that the CDU will only win if the party remains strong "in the middle of the society," insisting on social cohesion and the social market economy.
"We want to remain a strong people's party of the middle, in which everyone stands together... We are working on that now," Laschet said in his victory address.
In terms of foreign policy, Laschet is a strong supporter of European integration due to his working experience as a member of the European Parliament and was born in the German-Dutch-Belgian border region, according to analysts.
You will not see too many changes if Laschet becomes chancellor, said Michael Schumann, chairman of Germany's Federal Association for Economic Development and Foreign Trade.
"As a centrist candidate, he can build bridges and balance different factions and interest groups well," said Schumann.
Laschet's appearance came at a crucial time in German politics as federal elections are set for September.
The CDU, currently the most popular party according to polls, has been searching for its new leader for almost a year since its plenary meeting was postponed two times last April and December due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
In late 2018, Merkel announced that she would not seek a fifth term and later stepped down from the CDU leadership.
The later elected party head Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer nevertheless failed to show leadership within the party and was mired in an election scandal in the eastern state of Thuringia.
Kramp-Karrenbauer tendered her resignation in February 2020.
"I am aware of the responsibility associated with this office," Laschet said, adding he will "ensure the next chancellor in the coming federal elections will be from the (CDU/CSU) union."
The CDU head traditionally runs as a chancellor candidate in federal elections, but the pandemic has somehow changed this.
Christian Social Union (CSU) leader Markus Soeder, also minister-president of Germany's southern state of Bavaria, has gradually gained popularity led by positive reviews of his strict handling of the virus.
Soeder is now widely perceived as a potential candidate who might challenge Laschet.
Some also speculated that Health Minister Jens Spahn from the CDU might take a shot.
The CSU, operating only in Bavaria, is part of the CDU/CSU Union bloc in the federal parliament. The two parties will decide together on their common chancellor candidate.
So far, there has not been a CSU chancellor.