(Bloomberg) -- Armin Laschet gained the upper hand in the battle to succeed Angela Merkel at the head of conservatives’ ticket this September after winning a clear majority in a vote among his party’s leadership, putting pressure on his rival to step aside.
Laschet, the head of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, won the backing of 31 out of 46 members of his party’s top committee -- or 67% -- in a ballot early Tuesday morning to determine who should lead the center-right bloc into the national election. His rival for the top job, Bavarian State Premier Markus Soeder, won just nine votes, while six abstained.
The result, following an evening debate that stretched on for hours, gives the 60-year-old Laschet the edge in their contest. All eyes now are on Soeder after he said on Monday that he would accept a clear CDU vote in favor of Laschet.
“Ranks are closing behind Armin Laschet,” Roderich Kiesewetter, a CDU lawmaker, said in an interview with ZDF television. “Markus Soeder yesterday made a clear statement, and it’s important that the two come together” so the bloc can turn its attention to the campaign.
Soeder could still hold out to seek fresh momentum. Bundestag lawmakers from his smaller Christian Social Union will meet in Berlin on Tuesday morning and the wider caucus of the two parties will gather later in the afternoon.
There’s no formal process to settle a contested candidacy, which means the decision ultimately comes down to one backing down. But party officials see the race now as all but decided.
“I do expect that this question will be resolved unanimously between the two parties, just as this has been agreed on,” Thorsten Frei, deputy head of the CDU/CSU caucus, told Deutschlandfunk Radio on Tuesday, adding that a vote by the bloc’s 245-member group later is unlikely. “The caucus elects the chancellor, but not the chancellor candidate.”
The CDU vote represents a remarkable swing in the race. Laschet was under intense pressure in recent days as some in his own party threw their support behind Soeder, but he refused to capitulate despite low popularity. Polls show the Bavarian would have a significant advantage among voters leading the CDU/CSU ticket. Still, many others in the CDU have remained loyal to Laschet, who just took over the party in January.
Earlier on Monday, Laschet insisted he wanted to resolve the standoff over the CDU/CSU candidacy “very swiftly.” Polls suggest that Germany’s conservatives could be headed for their worst-ever election result, losing support to the Greens, who nominated Annalena Baerbock as their candidate on Monday.
Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has been campaigning for the Social Democrats, but the party is a distant third.
“The goal is to win this election and that will only be possible with a great deal of unity and a single candidate,” Laschet told reporters in Berlin before his party’s vote.
Even if Laschet holds on to nab the nomination, he’s been significantly weakened by the split in his party, with many openly voicing their support for Soeder.
On Sunday, the CDU’s youth wing voted to back the CSU leader, and three CDU state premiers -- from Saxony-Anhalt, Saarland and Saxony -- have also broken ranks with the rest of the party leadership and put their weight behind the Bavarian. During the session on Monday evening in Berlin, some CDU officials -- including Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, a close Merkel ally -- spoke out in favor of Soeder, damaging Laschet’s authority over the party.
Yet Laschet had refused to fold and Soeder failed to deliver a knock out blow that would decide the contest, despite appearing to seize the momentum over the weekend.
The son of a coal mining foreman, Laschet graduated in law, once edited a Catholic newspaper and was a legislator in the Bundestag as well as the European Parliament before being elected leader of Germany’s most populous state in 2017.
He would be likely to continue Merkel’s centrist policies as well as her low-key style of leadership, if he can claim the nomination and defend his slim advantage going into September’s national vote. Yet he would inherit a raft of new challenges, ranging from overcoming the coronavirus pandemic to managing a transition to green technology and tackling the threats posed by China and Russia.
(Updates with lawmaker comments)
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