Armin Laschet Elected to Lead Merkel’s Party

January 16, 2021 Updated: January 16, 2021

BERLIN—Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party on Saturday chose Armin Laschet, the governor of Germany’s most populous state, as its new leader—sending a signal of continuity months before an election in which voters will decide who becomes the new chancellor.

Laschet defeated Friedrich Merz, a conservative and one-time Merkel rival, at an online convention of the Christian Democratic Union. Laschet won 521 votes to Merz’s 466. A third candidate, prominent lawmaker Norbert Roettgen, was eliminated in a first round of voting.

Saturday’s vote isn’t the final word on who will run as the candidate for chancellor in Germany’s Sept. 26 election, but Laschet will either run for chancellor or will have a big say in who does.

Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005, announced in late 2018 that she wouldn’t seek a fifth term. She also stepped down from the CDU leadership.

The decision ends an 11-month leadership limbo in Germany’s strongest party after outgoing leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had failed to impose her authority on the party, announced her resignation. A vote on her successor was delayed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic.

There had been no clear favorite going into Saturday’s convention, but the election of Merz would have marked at least a symbolic break with the Merkel era. Laschet will now have to work to secure party unity.

Laschet, 59, was elected in 2017 as governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, a traditional center-left stronghold. He governs the region in a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats, the CDU’s traditional ally on the right, but would likely be able to work fairly smoothly with a more liberal partner. Current polls point to the environmentalist Greens as a possible key to power in the election.

Saturday’s result will now be officially endorsed in a postal ballot—which is expected to be a formality but is required by German law.

The CDU is part of the Union bloc along with the Bavaria-only Christian Social Union (CSU), and the two parties will decide together on the center-right candidate for chancellor.

CSU leader Markus Soeder, the governor of Bavaria, is widely considered a potential candidate after gaining in political stature during the pandemic. Some also consider Health Minister Jens Spahn, who supported Laschet and was elected as one of his deputies, a possible contender.

Alternative for Germany co-leader Joerg Meuthen said Laschet’s election means the CDU “will carry on Merkeling” and asserted that his party “remains the only conservative party in Germany.”