Merkel favourite takes the reins as ruling party votes for moderation
Chancellor's heir apparent Kramp-Karrenbauer narrowly squeezes out conservative opponent
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has been elected the new leader of Germany's ruling conservative party, bringing to an end a historic period of 18 years with Angela Merkel at the helm.
The centrist Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, widely known as AKK, fought off a strong challenge from millionaire banker Friedrich Merz, defeating him by just 35 votes from a total of 999 delegates to the CDU conference in Hamburg.
The narrowness of the victory pointed to deep divisions in the party, which has suffered a series of damaging local election results since last September's general election, triggering Ms Merkel's decision to stand aside.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer becomes the presumptive next Chancellor of Germany when Ms Merkel retires in 2021 - or earlier if ideological divisions within the party force the German leader to step down.
In an olive branch to Mr Merz, the new leader struck a constructive tone.
"This momentum needs to carry on, and we must be united and stay united in our goal which is to include all of the wings of the party, all of its members and to be the people's party of the middle ground," she said after her win.
Analysts said the decision to keep with Ms Merkel's centrist position would enable the party to counteract the rise of the Green party.
"This result will give the CDU the chance to win voters back from the Green party -who they have lost more voters to in state elections than the AfD," said Manfred Güllner, director of Forsa polling.
"It was a decision by the party to continue on a centrist course and that is the right one for the party," he said.
The victory for Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer came after Ms Merkel used her valedictory speech to make a decisive intervention against Mr Merz, pleading for the party to stay on the middle path she has trodden during her 18 years as leader.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer's battle against Mr Merz - a 63-year-old who used to be the party's parliamentary leader before being pushed out by Ms Merkel in 2002 - was the CDU's first competitive vote for a new head since 1971.
Ms Merkel chose not to publicly back any of the candidates who had fought at nationwide hustings. But her speech seemed to be an attempt to persuade undecided delegates the right choice was the more moderate candidate.
The chancellor had stressed the party was at a key point in its history, that it would require "all of its strength" to overcome the challenges it currently faces, a reference to a string of miserable election results in recent months.
She reminded delegates "we have fought against strong headwinds before. I only need mention the election success in Saarland last year when, despite the predictions, we won over 40pc of the vote".
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer was state leader in Saarland in 2017, where she guided the CDU to an unexpectedly resounding victory over the Social Democrat SPD just months before the national election.