HAMBURG • Merkel loyalist Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has won the vote to succeed Dr Angela Merkel as head of Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, as the Chancellor bowed out as leader of the party.
The 56-year-old Merkel acolyte defeated rival Friedrich Merz in the second round of voting after Health Minister Jens Spahn was eliminated. Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer gained enough support from Mr Spahn's backers to get 517 votes to Mr Merz's 482.
Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer, appointed earlier this year by Dr Merkel as the party's general secretary, withstood an energetic challenge from Mr Merz, who was seeking a political comeback with the backing of party heavyweights like former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.
She will now be viewed as first in line to run for chancellor in 2021 after Dr Merkel's surprise announcement in October that her fourth term will be her last.
Dr Merkel said then she would step down as party chief but remain chancellor, an effort to manage her exit after a series of setbacks since her divisive decision in 2015 to keep German borders open to refugees fleeing war in the Middle East.
The 64-year-old leader told the CDU congress in Hamburg of her gratitude for the chance to have served as party chief for 18 years, 13 as Chancellor, during which she came to dominate European politics as its key crisis manager and consensus-builder.
"It has been a great pleasure for me, it has been an honour," she said to a standing ovation lasting nearly 10 minutes, and fighting to hold back tears.
STAYING THE COURSE
The CDU... must not look back but look forward, with new people... but with the same values.
DR ANGELA MERKEL, who bowed out as leader of her Christian Democrats yesterday.
Outlining the multiple challenges facing Germany, from rapidly changing technology to climate change and a global shift away from multilateralism to defending national interests, she said: "In times like these, we will defend our liberal views, our way of life, both at home and abroad.
"The CDU... must not look back but look forward, with new people... but with the same values," added Dr Merkel, who has said she would remain neutral on her successor as party chief.
Mr Merz, 63, who lost to Dr Merkel in a power struggle in 2002 and is returning to politics after a decade in business, is backed by CDU members tired of Dr Merkel's consensual politics.
In a brief, upbeat address before the vote that brought many delegates to their feet, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer called on the party to reject the politics of fear as the far-right makes inroads in Germany and Europe.
Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer's trump card is her record as former state premier in Saarland, where she led a broad coalition with the Greens and pro-business Free Democrats - alliance-building skills useful in Germany's fractured political landscape.
Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer has differentiated herself from Dr Merkel on social and foreign policies by voting in favour of quotas for women on corporate boards and by taking a tougher line on Russia.
She told Reuters last week that Europe and the United States should consider blockading Russian ships over the Ukraine crisis.
But on what lies ahead for the CDU, she said: "I have no particular recipe."
By contrast, Mr Merz takes clear positions that appeal to rank-and-file party members hungry for a more clearly defined conservative party.
He wants tax cuts, a bigger German contribution to holding together the EU, and a more robust approach to challenging the far right.
The selection of the CDU's leader came in a vote of 1,001 delegates at the party's annual conference, which was held in a cavernous convention centre in the northern port city of Hamburg.
Party elders and office-holders voted by secret ballot, with each of the three main candidates first given the chance to make their pitch.
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST, BLO0MBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE