BERLIN (Reuters) - A leading German Christian Democrat has called for the conservative bloc's choice of chancellor candidate for September's election to be dependent on popularity ratings, effectively shifting his support behind Bavarian Markus Soeder.
With CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel stepping down after the election, pressure is mounting on the bloc to agree on a candidate as its ratings wallow near a one-year low, hurt by the government's chaotic handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The race between Armin Laschet, CDU chairman, and Soeder, head of the CDU's Bavarian CSU sister party, has descended into a messy spat despite both men vowing on Sunday to make a quick and amicable decision.
Saxony-Anhalt state premier Reiner Haseloff, a member of the CDU executive committee that unanimously backed Laschet on Monday, told Der Spiegel magazine that popularity should be the decisive factor in settling the candidacy question.
"Unfortunately, it is now all about the hard question of power: with whom do we have the best chance?" Haseloff said in comments published on Thursday. "It's not about personal affection, trust or character traits."
Haseloff's comments make him the first leading CDU politician to distance himself from his party chief, who has been found to be far less popular than Soeder in repeated opinion polls.
Soeder's Bavarian swagger, confidence and directness has won him support even beyond his southern state during the pandemic. By contrast, Laschet has flip-flopped on lockdown measures, turning off voters.
Haseloff is one of seven conservative state premiers, including Laschet and Soeder.
Haseloff's state of Saxony-Anhalt lies in eastern Germany, where CDU members tend to lean towards the right. Laschet, from North Rhine-Westphalia in the west, is a centrist. Haseloff also faces a regional election on June 6, ahead of the federal vote.
There is no formal procedure for choosing the CDU/CSU candidate as in the past the candidates have decided behind closed doors.
Laschet, 60, is widely seen as a candidate who would continue Merkel's legacy, though he has clashed with her over coronavirus restrictions. Soeder, 54, is an astute political operator who has sided with Merkel during the pandemic.
No chancellor has ever come from Soeder's Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), the smaller sister party to the CDU.
While the CDU is loathe to see the balance of power in the conservative alliance shift towards the smaller party, many in the CDU are nervous about their prospects at the Sept. 26 election without Merkel, who has led them to four victories.
(Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Alison Williams)