German CDU says it still plans in-person congress to elect new leader

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FILE PHOTO: Merkel presser after EU summit at Europa building in Brussels
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BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Christian Democrats said on Sunday they still planned to hold a physical party congress to elect a new leader and potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, dismissing a report that it would have to be held online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Germany is experiencing an accelerating second wave of infections, and the Handelsblatt daily earlier quoted a party leader as saying it would be irresponsible to hold a gathering for 1,000 delegates on Dec. 4 as planned.

But a spokeswoman for the centre-right party said the in-person event in Stuttgart was still on: "That's what the CDU leadership has decided."

Stuttgart is the capital of the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, which at the weekend invoked its highest pandemic threat level.

Merkel on Saturday urged the public to stay at home and avoid travel where possible to minimise the spread of COVID-19. The number of coronavirus infections hit a daily record of 7,830 on Saturday.

One party leader told Handelsblatt that an in-person gathering could not be justified when the government was telling people to stay at home. Other senior party figures have, however, called publicly for it to go ahead as planned.

The 66-year-old chancellor, who has already stepped down as party leader, will not run for a record fifth consecutive term at a general election due in September 2021, meaning the CDU will be seeking re-election with a new figurehead.

An attempt to stage-manage the succession fell apart this year when Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who won a leadership vote two years ago only to struggle in the role, said she would step down.

Three candidates - Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz and Norbert Roettgen - are now vying to lead Germany's most popular party.

Parliament this month passed legislation allowing virtual party conferences to pass resolutions and elect leaders, either by postal vote or by locally-held secret ballot.

(Reporting by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Kevin Liffey)

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