Laschet stands his ground in Merkel succession showdown

FILE PHOTO: German Christian Democratic Union Party Leader Armin Laschet briefs the media after a meeting of the party's board at the headquarters in Berlin, Germany, April 12, 2021. Markus Schreiber/Pool via Reuters

BERLIN (Reuters) - Armin Laschet, leader of Germany's Christian Democrats, is sticking to his ambition to run as conservative candidate to succeed Angela Merkel despite a strong showing by his Bavarian rival with lawmakers, a senior party source said.

The race between Laschet, chairman of the Christian Democrats (CDU), and Markus Soeder, head of the CDU's Bavarian CSU sister party, has descended into a messy spat despite both vowing on Sunday to make a quick and amicable decision.

At stake is the style, and direction, of Germany's political leadership for at least the next four years and, possibly, the future of the CDU/CSU conservative alliance - the dominant force in post-war German politics.

"I have no sign of movement in any of the candidates so far," said one CDU lawmaker who supports Soeder.

Pressure is mounting on the conservative bloc to agree a candidate to succeed Merkel as its ratings wallow near a one-year low, hurt by the government's chaotic handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Laschet, 60, is a centrist widely seen as a candidate who would continue Merkel's legacy, but he has clashed with her over coronavirus restrictions. Soeder, 54, is an astute political operator who has sided with Merkel during the pandemic.

The rivals to succeed Merkel, who is stepping down after a Sept. 26 federal election, went head to head on Tuesday to win the support of lawmakers, exposing deep rifts within the parliamentary bloc.

Some 28 politicians from Laschet's CDU spoke out for Soeder during a meeting of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group of around 240 lawmakers on Tuesday in an apparent display of disloyalty - not a easy message for Laschet to have to listen to, but not a game-changer, the senior CDU source said.

Laschet still wants to be the candidate, the source added.

A Forsa poll for broadcasters RTL and ntv published on Wednesday showed Soeder would be the politician best placed to win if Germans could vote directly for chancellor.

There is no formal procedure for choosing the CDU/CSU candidate as in the past the likeliest candidates have decided behind closed doors.

Soeder and Laschet, and their parties, want to settle the matter quickly but the Bavarian warned on Monday that rushing the decision based on support Laschet received from the CDU elite "could lead to divisions" between the allies.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke; Writing by Paul Carrel, editing by Emma Thomasson, William Maclean)

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