Centrist politician Armin Laschet has positioned himself as the man to heal divisions among Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union after they chose him to lead the party, putting him in pole position to succeed her as Germany's chancellor.
Laschet, premier of the country's most populous state and the self-styled Merkel continuity candidate, beat arch-conservative Friedrich Merz in a ballot of CDU party delegates.
Merkel, Europe's predominant politician and a consistent winner with German voters since taking office in 2005, has said she will not run for chancellor again in September's federal election.
Since she stepped down as CDU leader in December 2018, the party has struggled to find a suitable successor.
In choosing Laschet, premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, delegates opted for a candidate more palatable to the left-leaning Greens party, second behind the conservatives in opinion polls and seen as a potential coalition partner come September.
But the narrow 521-466 margin of his runoff victory over Merz highlights the challenge that Laschet faces in uniting a conservative bloc that has never been entirely comfortable with Merkel's centrist course, despite her successive federal election victories.
In his victory speech, Laschet urged democratic forces to rally against a tide of extremism that had swept through Western nations along with the coronavirus pandemic.
"Especially in these days that we are experiencing in the world, the phrase 'unity, justice and freedom' is more topical than ever," he said, quoting the first line of the German national anthem.
"Let us fight together for these principles against all those who want to endanger them."
Factions within the CDU accuse Merkel of having left a vacuum on the party's right for the far-right Alternative for Germany party to step into - and later conspiracy theorists questioning the reality of the coronavirus pandemic.
Merkel said last year that Laschet, 59, had "the tools" to run for chancellor, the closest she has come to endorsing anyone.
But even as leader, Laschet is not guaranteed a run at the chancellorship, as the party could yet nominate someone else. Binding results of Saturday's voting are expected on January 22.
Possible alternative candidates include Health Minister Jens Spahn, credited with a successful response to the coronavirus crisis, and Markus Soeder, the popular premier of Bavaria and the leader of the CSU, the CDU's sister party in the region.
Merz, who narrowly lost a 2018 bid for the CDU leadership, told Reuters he had offered Laschet the possibility of joining the current government as economy minister. A spokesman for Merkel said no government reshuffle was planned.
Merkel was succeeded in 2018 as party leader by her protegee Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who struggled in the role and said last year she would step down.
Australian Associated Press