Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a close ally of Angela Merkel, won a tight race to succeed her as party leader on Friday, seeing off a longtime rival of the German chancellor. 1001 delegates are electing a successor of German Chancellor Angela Merkel who doesn't run again for party chairmanship after more than 18 years at the helm of the party.
While Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, is viewed as similar to Merkel with an even temper and middle-of-the-road policies, Merz, 63, has become the torchbearer for those seeking a more decisive break from the chancellor.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hand over the reins of her Christian Democratic Union after almost two decades, with the fate of the divided party up for grabs between a loyal deputy and a longtime rival. She moved her party relentlessly to the centre, dropping military conscription, accelerating Germany's exit from nuclear energy, introducing benefits encouraging fathers to look after their young children and allowing the introduction of gay marriage.
Sometimes dubbed "mini Merkel", Kramp-Karrenbauer is admired by the CDU upper echelons for her appeal across the party.
Earlier, an emotional Merkel bowed out as party leader, telling the congress: "It has been a great pleasure for me, it has been an honour". The victor will likely lead the CDU in the next federal election due by October 2021.
For years, Merkel's popularity lifted the CDU and its Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union.
"I wasn't born as chancellor or as party leader", she said.
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A third contender, Health Minister Jens Spahn, 38, an outspoken critic of Merkel's 2015 decision to welcome more than one million asylum seekers to Germany, is running a distant third.
"I hope we emerge from this party conference well-equipped, motivated and united", Merkel said.
Pointing to the rise of populism worldwide and what she called a breakdown of shared Western values, Merkel said the order she had championed was at risk.
She said that "we kept a cool head" and "we showed everyone" by recovering.
Handpicked by Merkel as general secretary of the party in February, AKK was immediately seen as the chancellor's anointed crown princess.
While Merkel remains popular, AKK inherits a diminished party which is now polling at roughly 30 percent, far below the about 40 percent enjoyed during Merkel's heyday.
It has bled support to the right, in the form of the upstart anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, and to the resurgent Greens on the left.
Meanwhile Germany's oldest party, the Social Democrats (SPD) - junior partners in Merkel's "grand coalition" - is mired in crisis.