The head of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU secured the backing of the party's top brass on Monday, a key boost for his campaign to succeed the veteran leader at elections in September. But his rival has signalled that he will not go down without a fight.
At a meeting in Berlin, CDU heavyweights threw their support behind Armin Laschet to lead the party and its smaller Bavarian sister party, the CSU, to the polls on September 26 -- when Merkel will retire after 16 years as chancellor.
But Laschet's rival Markus Soeder, the head of the CSU, warned that such a key decision taken "only from the top" could lead to divisions.
"Rather, one must also have the rank and file on board," he said, as the leadership of his CSU party threw their support behind him.
The stalemate left Merkel's conservative alliance entering a crucial election year locked in a bitter rivalry.
Though the CDU leader would normally be the bloc's first choice as chancellor candidate, dismal poll ratings have led to calls for Laschet to step aside in favour of Soeder, who is more popular with the public.
The latest survey published by Bild daily has Soeder outstripping even Merkel to become the most popular politician in Germany.
The stakes in the race are high, as support for the CDU-CSU has plunged to record lows of less than 30 percent following anger over their management of the pandemic, a sluggish vaccination programme and a corruption scandal over mask procurement.
With the once-fringe Green Party now polling just a few points behind them, the CDU-CSU faces the real prospect of losing the chancellery for the first time since 2005.
- 'Broad support' -
Long-time Merkel ally Laschet, 60, took over as CDU leader in January but has since suffered a series of setbacks including a damaging spat with Merkel over virus containment measures.
As head of the country's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Laschet defended his region's broad interpretation of national virus measures, calling for "more freedom and flexibility".
He also ridiculed on social media for saying he needed time to "think about" how to deal with Germany's spiralling third wave over Easter. Then critics accused him of flip-flopping when he appeared to change his mind with calls for a "bridge lockdown".
But CDU general secretary Paul Ziemiak said Monday there was "broad support" among the party's senior members for Laschet "as a chancellor candidate for the CDU and CSU".
Welcoming the "great support" shown to him by the party chiefs, Laschet said he would seek to have a conversation with Soeder by the end of the day, calling for the question to be resolved as soon as possible.
But Soeder was not giving way for now. Saying there was "at least still room for discussion", he called for the final decision to be postponed until later in the week.
The CSU parliamentary group in the Bavarian state parliament also demanded a vote on the candidacy among all CSU and CDU members -- something that would increase Soeder's chances.
"Elections can only be won with real, broad-based support -- especially when it is close," Soeder said after a meeting of the CSU's senior leadership in Berlin.
Soeder had remained tight-lipped about his ambitions to run for chancellor, but on Sunday openly stated his willingness to run for the first time -- "if the CDU broadly supports this as the bigger sister party".
- Courting Merkel -
The Bavarian leader consistently beats Laschet in popularity polls, with a latest survey commissioned by business daily Handelsblatt showing that 46 percent of Germans thought he would be a good chancellor candidate, compared to just 12 percent for Laschet.
He won popular backing for taking a hard line on virus measures in Bavaria and has sought to align himself with Merkel, arguing that the chancellor should help decide who would be her successor.
"A CDU-CSU candidate without the support of Angela Merkel will not be successful," he told the Bild daily last weekend.
The Star Trek fan and fancy-dress loving Bavarian also insisted in an interview with Spiegel magazine that the candidate needed to be "accepted by the whole population, not just the party".