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BERLIN: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU party picked her ally Armin Laschet as its next leader on Saturday, in a vote for “continuity” as Europe’s biggest economy heads into a key election year with the deadly coronavirus pandemic still raging.

In the close race, Laschet, the state premier of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, triumphed over old Merkel nemesis Friedrich Merz, after a first round that saw Merz leading by just five votes.

A third hopeful, foreign affairs expert Norbert Roettgen, was knocked out of the race.

Merz had campaigned on a promise to shift away from Merkel’s centrist path and steer right, writing in a column for Der Spiegel that a “happy ‘carry on like this’ is just as inappropriate as the vague claim to occupy the centre at all times”.

But delegates at the congress, pushed online because of the pandemic, were not swayed by the 65-year-old corporate lawyer.

Instead, they gave a late victory to Laschet, who pledged to continue with Merkel’s more moderate course. In a speech minutes before the vote on Saturday, Laschet called for “continuity” and highlighted the challenge of retaining CDU voters without Merkel at the top.

Laschet’s win on Saturday puts him pole position to lead the CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party into a general election as their chancellor candidate, meaning he is in with a good chance of securing Merkel’s job. Merkel, who is planning to stand down after four terms and 16 years in the job, had previously said that Laschet “has the tools” to be chancellor.

But the pandemic has reshuffled the cards, and questions are swirling on whether someone other than the CDU chief could lead the conservative alliance into the vote, particularly since Laschet currently polls nowhere close to the top in popularity surveys.