By Paul Carrel
BERLIN (Reuters) - The youth wing of Germany's conservative bloc overwhelmingly backs businessman Friedrich Merz to become his party's chairman and wants him to stake out bolder positions than Chancellor Angela Merkel has done, their leader said on Tuesday.
The new chairman of the Christian Democrats (CDU), to be chosen by 1,001 delegates at a party congress in mid-January, will be in pole position to succeed Merkel as chancellor.
Merz is locked in a battle for the chair with Armin Laschet, premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, and foreign policy expert Norbert Roettgen. The youth wing is predominantly right-wing, like Merz and will have 100 delegates at the congress. Laschet, favoured by the CDU elite, is more centrist.
Merz won 51.6% support in an online vote by 14,983 members of the Junge Union - youth wing of the CDU and its CSU Bavarian sister party - with 27.9% backing Roettgen, and 19.8% Laschet.
"I personally consider the survey results as binding," Junge Union chairman Tilman Kuban told a news conference. "It is certainly an important recommendation for the 100 delegates of the Junge Union at the federal party conference."
At stake is the leadership of Europe's biggest economy in the era after Merkel, who has vowed not to run again at elections due next autumn after looming large on the European stage since 2005 and proving a winner with German voters.
Merz thanked the Junge Union for its support, which he said gave his leadership bid "a tailwind".
But Bodo Loettgen, a Laschet ally from North Rhine-Westphalia, played down the significance of the vote as only a fifth of the Junge Union members eligible to vote had done so.
"It does not allow any conclusions to be drawn about the voting behaviour of the 1,001 party conference delegates," Loettgen told media group RND.
Kuban praised Merkel for steering Germany through several crises but said he sensed a desire among the CDU's youth wing to be more confrontational with other parties after ruling in a consensus-driven 'grand coalition' with the Social Democrats.
"This vote has shown that the younger generation wants to see more differentiation in German politics," he added.
The CDU is riding high in opinion polls but senior party officials are worried about damaging internal divisions triggered by a delay in voting for the new leader, and want members to unite quickly behind the next chairman.
(Reporting by Paul Carrel; Editing by Alexandra Hudson, William Maclean)