A special April convention for about 1,000 delegates to choose the new CDU leader fell victim to the the first phase of the COVID-19 crisis. The party put off the decision until a regular convention in Stuttgart on Dec. 4.
With new virus infections rebounding in Germany as they are across Europe, and gatherings again being restricted in many places, officials concluded that the Stuttgart convention couldn't go ahead either.
The party's general secretary, Paul Ziemiak, said the leadership still hopes to hold a convention with delegates present. It hopes to decide Dec. 14 on when the choice will be made; and if not then, at a meeting scheduled for Jan. 15-16.
Deciding the issue with an online vote isn't currently legally possible, though the party is pushing for that to change. If nothing else is possible, the party could hold an online convention followed by a mail-in vote, Ziemiak said.
There are three main contenders for the CDU leadership: Friedrich Merz, 64, a conservative former leader of its parliamentary group who spent years away from front-line politics; Armin Laschet, 59, the more liberal governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state; and Norbert Roettgen, 55, who chairs parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
The CDU’s poll ratings have been bolstered by the Merkel government’s management so far of the pandemic, and it has a strong lead. But Merkel, 66, has vowed not to seek a fifth term as chancellor.
Surveys suggest that Merz, who narrowly lost to Kramp-Karrenbauer in 2018, is a favorite with the party's grassroots, but he holds no government or other formal political post to bolster his profile.
Merz had pushed for a vote in December. He criticized the delay before it was even officially announced, tweeting that it was “a decision against the CDU rank and file."
Earlier Wednesday, Merz — a one-time rival of Merkel, who ousted him as the party's parliamentary leader in 2002 — told ARD television “there are parts of the party establishment ... that want to prevent me from becoming party chairman.”
Ziemiak said that “there is no reason to assume that.”
“We stand together as a party, and that goes for everyone,” he said.
A decision on who runs for chancellor will have to be taken jointly with the Christian Social Union, the CDU's Bavaria-only sister party. The CSU leader, Bavarian governor Markus Soeder, 53, is also widely considered a potential candidate.