BERLIN (REUTERS) - Germany's Christian Democrats (CDU) backed party chairman Armin Laschet on Monday (April 12) to run for chancellor at a September election, and asked him to speak to his Bavarian rival to agree a single candidate for their conservative bloc quickly.
Mr Laschet said he would contact rival Markus Soeder, who leads the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), later on Monday to settle on a candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel "very soon".
After months of speculation, the candidacy question came to a head on Sunday when Mr Soeder, Bavarian premier, put himself forward.
Pressure is mounting for a swift decision on who should stand for the two-party bloc as the candidate to succeed Dr Merkel, who has ruled out standing for a fifth term.
"There is broad support for Armin Laschet as candidate for chancellor from CDU and CSU," CDU Secretary General Paul Ziemiak told a joint news conference with Mr Laschet after a meeting of CDU party leaders.
As the larger partner in the CDU/CSU alliance, the CDU's choice of candidate is likely to be decisive, sources in the alliance say.
Mr Laschet, 60, is a centrist widely seen as a candidate who would continue Dr Merkel's legacy, but he has clashed with her over coronavirus restrictions. Premier of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, his chaotic handling of the crisis has undermined his popularity.
Mr Soeder, 54, is an astute political operator who has sided with Dr Merkel during the coronavirus pandemic. No CSU leader has become German chancellor.
As the younger politician, time is also on his side, and Mr Soeder may choose to step aside and let Mr Laschet take the blame if the alliance loses in the election.
Many conservatives are nervous about contesting the Sept 26 federal election without Dr Merkel, who has led them to four victories. She has not explicitly backed either candidate but has hinted that she would back the CDU leader.
The conservative bloc has slipped to about 27 per cent in polls, partly due to an increasingly chaotic management of the pandemic. In the 2017 election, it won almost 33 per cent. The alliance remains a few points ahead of the ecologist Greens.
The Social Democrats have nominated Finance Minister Olaf Scholz as their candidate for chancellor, while the Greens plan to announce their nomination on April 19.
Expressing his delight at the "great support" from the CDU leadership, Mr Laschet said he had told a meeting of top party officials "I want a modern Germany".
"I want us to combine climate protection issues with economic issues," he told a news conference, in a nod to the Greens.
A coalition government of the CDU/CSU alliance and Greens stacks up as the most likely scenario after the election.
"My candidacy, my understanding of the office of chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany is a European one," Mr Laschet added, vowing to seek multilateral solutions in foreign policy.