End of Merkel era begins as German CDU picks new party leader
Germany's Christian Democrats elect a new chairman on Saturday, aiming to unite their conservative party behind a leader who they hope can succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor when she steps down after federal elections in September.
At stake is the leadership of Europe's biggest economy. Merkel, the continent's predominant politician and a consistent winner with German voters since taking office in 2005, has said she will not run again.
The new CDU chairman will be elected by 1,001 delegates at a digital congress, who began voting shortly before 1000 GMT.
By tradition, that person is usually - though not always - the chancellor candidate for the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the conservative bloc is on course to win September's federal ballot.
Centrist Armin Laschet, arch-conservative Friedrich Merz and foreign policy expert Norbert Roettgen are vying for the CDU leadership.
However, polls show Markus Soeder, the CSU leader, is the conservative most favoured by voters. Some CDU lawmakers want dynamic Health Minister Jens Spahn to run for chancellor, though he has backed Laschet for the party leadership.
Laschet, the first of the three candidates to speak on Saturday, said many voters preferred Merkel over her party.
"The Chancellor's reputation both here and abroad can be summed up in one word: trust," he told an empty studio from which the congress was livestreamed to delegates.
The next leader's task would be to earn that same trust, both for himself and for the party, he said.
The three declared CDU candidates all contrast with Merkel.
Roettgen, 55, the eloquent chairman of parliament's foreign affairs committee, wants Germany to take a firmer stance with Russia and China. Merz, 65, has targeted European Central Bank policy and is less diplomatic. Laschet, 59, who has polished his international profile, complains Berlin has taken "too long to react" to French calls for European Union reform.
Roettgen has suggested that, if elected CDU leader, he could support Soeder, Bavaria's premier, to run as chancellor candidate for their alliance.
Soeder, 54, has shifted from the right towards the moderate centre of late. He plays coy about his ambitions - "My place is in Bavaria" has been his repeated refrain.
Carsten Nickel at Teneo, a political risk consultancy, said Soeder's deft move towards the centre ground could make him the ideal candidate to lead a coalition with the ecologist Greens.
"But of course, the true challenges will arise when liberal and conservative demands clash," Nickel added.
Germany is headed for another coalition government in September, with the CDU/CSU likely though not guaranteed to lead it.
Opinion polls give Merkel's conservative bloc around 36% of votes, followed by the Greens on around 20% and the Social Democrats on 16%.