Merkel urges moderate leader on eve of key party chairman vote

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Berlin (AFP)

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday urged her conservative Christian Democrats to remain a centrist party, signalling her rejection of nemesis Friedrich Merz who is frontrunner for the post of party chairman.

The CDU will elect a new leader on Saturday in a key vote that could define what the party will look like in a post-Merkel era.

"As a people's party of the centre, we naturally seek solutions that balance out conflicts and always promote ... social cohesion," Merkel told delegates at the opening of an online conference to pick the party's next leader.

"This has always distinguished us as a governing party," she said.

Three men are vying for the job: North Rhine-Westphalia state premier Armin Laschet, old Merkel rival Merz and foreign affairs expert Norbert Roettgen.

Merz has campaigned on a promise to shift the party to the right, writing in a column for the Der Spiegel weekly that a "happy 'carry on like this' is just as inappropriate as the vague claim to occupy the centre at all times".

Laschet and Roettgen are expected to continue with Merkel's more moderate centrist course.

- 'Our proud party' -

Giving a further hint of her choice, Merkel said she hoped that "a team will be elected that will take the fate of our proud party in its hands".

While she did not name names, the call appeared to be indicating support for Laschet, who has campaigned on a joint ticket with Health Minister Jens Spahn as his deputy.

Merkel had previously already said the Laschet "has the tools" to be chancellor.

Merkel, elected as Germany's youngest and first female chancellor in 2005, is planning to stand down after four terms and 16 years in the job following a general election in September.

She had already given up the party's chairman job in 2018 but her preferred successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was forced to also step down over her handling of a regional election scandal.

The head of the CDU traditionally leads the party into a general election as its chancellor candidate, meaning the winner of Saturday's vote would be in with a good chance of securing the top job.

- 'Most severe test' -

Merkel's cautious style of consensus politics has granted her lasting popularity in a wealthy, ageing nation that tends to favour continuity over change.

She helped Germany weather storms including the global financial crisis and eurozone turmoil as she shifted her CDU firmly to the political centre.

Support for the chancellor and the CDU plummeted after Germany kept open its borders in 2015 to a mass influx of refugees, dividing society and leading to the rise of the far right.

But Merkel's popularity has soared again thanks to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, making it increasingly difficult for Germans to imagine political life without her.

Merkel described the coronavirus crisis as "the most severe test" of her time in power, noting that the pandemic has "constricted and changed our everyday lives in ways we have never seen before".

The chancellor is due to hold talks with regional leaders of Germany's 16 states on Tuesday, as new infections remain stubbornly high despite a partial lockdown since mid-December.

Europe's biggest economy crossed two million cases of Covid-19 infections on Friday, with another 1,113 fatalities reported over the last 24 hours.