Germany's Laschet joins Merkel party leadership race with rival's support

BERLIN (Reuters) – The premier of Germany’s most populous state, Armin Laschet, joined the race to lead Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) on Tuesday and won the backing of Health Minister Jens Spahn who had been expected to run himself.

The CDU plans to pick a new leader at a congress on April 25, an attempt to resolve a crisis that is shaking the party’s hold on power.

Laschet, who leads North Rhine-Westphalia, is the second official candidate, with a third due to announce his intention later on Tuesday.

The CDU succession debate was triggered two weeks ago when leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer unexpectedly said she would no longer seek to succeed her mentor Merkel.

Laschet is widely seen as the Merkel continuity candidate but by teaming up with Spahn, a fierce critic of her 2015 open-door migrant policy, he could appeal to some on the conservative wing of the party.

“The CDU is bigger than either one of us, this is about the future of our country and the CDU,” said Spahn.

“We have had our differences in the past but it is time to build bridges for the future,” he said, also making clear that he did not want to break with the chancellor.

Merkel, chancellor of Europe’s biggest economy for almost 15 years, has said she will not run again in the next federal election, due by Oct. 2021.

It is unclear if she will be able to remain chancellor until then with a new party leader although Kramp-Karrenbauer has said the party expects the new party chair to work alongside the chancellor.

Asked about working with Merkel and the ruling coalition, which includes the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Laschet said the government was elected until the end of the term in autumn 2021 and there would be no cabinet reshuffle now.

“We are focusing on the time after 2021 in terms of new ideas,” he said, adding that the decision on who will run as chancellor for the conservative bloc also depends on the CDU’s sister party, Bavaria’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

The CSU may decide it would prefer to have its own leader, Markus Soeder, be the chancellor candidate.

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Laschet said Germany must remain an industrial country while it exits nuclear power and coal. A week after a racist attack in western Germany that left 11 people dead, he also said that Jews and people with migrant roots must not be afraid to live here.

Last week, Norbert Roettgen, head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, unexpectedly joined the leadership race.

Friedrich Merz, on the right of the party and a long-time archrival of Merkel, is expected to announce his candidacy at a news conference later on Tuesday morning.

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