BERLIN - 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.
"The die is cast - Armin Laschet will be the Union's candidate for chancellor," Soeder told reporters in Munich.
"I called Armin Laschet and congratulated him," Soeder added. "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."
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.
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. Only 17% of conservatives saw Laschet as the more suitable candidate, the survey by the Infratest Dimap polling institute found.
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 now 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.
With the ecologist Greens just a few points behind them, many conservatives are nervous about their chances of holding onto power in September without Merkel, who congratulated Laschet on becoming the candidate.
"I look forward to our cooperation in the coming months," Merkel said, according to a Tweet posted by her spokesman.
Laschet is widely seen as the candidate likely to continue Merkel's legacy, but 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.
Baerbock, who has promised change if she becomes chancellor, tweeted her congratulations to Laschet on his candidacy, adding: "I'm counting on a fair election campaign for the leadership of this country."
Additional reporting by Rene Wagner, Editing by Kim Coghill, Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones) ((email@example.com; +49 30 2888 5085; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org www.twitter.com/REUTERS_DE www.reuters.de))