Showdown in Berlin: conservative rivals to succeed Merkel woo lawmakers

North Rhine-Westphalia's State Premier and head of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party Armin Laschet speaks to the media as he leaves after a CDU/CSU fraction meeting in Berlin, Germany April 13, 2021. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's two rivals to succeed Angela Merkel as conservative chancellor candidate in a September election went head to head on Tuesday to win the support of lawmakers, exposing deep rifts within the parliamentary bloc.

The race between Armin Laschet, leader of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), and Markus Soeder, head of the Bavarian CSU sister party, has descended into a messy spat just two days after both vowed to make a quick and amicable decision.

However, after the meeting of both parliamentary parties, the two men said they wanted a decision to be made this week.

Soeder, a canny political operator, homed in on his hefty lead in opinion polls, participants said.

"Do we want to win?" Soeder asked lawmakers, according to participants. "In the end, it's not the programme that decides but the people," they quoted him as saying.

While opinion at the meeting was split, a majority backed Soeder, said participants. The view of the parliamentary party is a factor in the choice of who runs as the bloc's chancellor candidate, but not necessarily decisive.

There is no formal procedure as in the past the likeliest candidates have decided behind closed doors.

Laschet, whose strength stems mainly from his position as head of the larger party, won the support of CDU top brass on Monday.

After the meeting, he said he and Soeder would make a joint recommendation and a decision would come, if possible, this week.

A centrist who became CDU leader only in January, Laschet stressed the importance of unity and was quoted by Spiegel Online as saying: "We don't need a one-man show".

Premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, his chaotic handling of the coronavirus pandemic has hit his popularity.

Many conservative lawmakers worry that a long contest will damage the bloc which looks lost fighting a campaign without its main electoral asset, Merkel, who is not standing for a fifth term. She said she is keeping out of the race.

The CDU's Friedrich Merz accused Soeder of deliberately undermining the CDU. "Does the CSU realise what it means to dismantle the next party leader of the CDU within a few weeks?" Merz wrote to his local party members in a newsletter.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke; Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Mark Potter)

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