Armin Laschet was elected as the new leader of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (CDU) on Saturday, signalling the start of an election campaign that will see the end of her 15 years in power. The 59-year-old Mr Laschet will hope to succeed Mrs Merkel as chancellor when she stand down following general elections in September. Mr Laschet defeated Friedrich Merz, a long-standing rival of Mrs Merkel, and Norbert Röttgen, a former environment minister, to win the leadership with the votes of 521 of the 1,0001 party delegates. It was a vote to stay on the course Mrs Merkel has set for the party. Mr Laschet pitched himself as the continuity candidate against the pro-business Mr Merz, who wanted to take the CDU back to what he saw as its conservative roots. "We'll only win if we stay strong in the middle of society," he said in his final pitch to delegates."We have to win, not because we want to win, but because we have to for our country, for our future." As regional leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, he had the most government experience of the candidates, but saw his standing damaged by his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Although he failed to inspire during the campaign, he was the preferred candidate of the party establishment, and Mrs Merkel made her own backing clear in a speech on Friday when she said she wanted to see "a team" win -- Mr Laschest was the only candidate standing in a team, with Jens Spahn the popular health minister as his running mate. But Mr Laschet is not guaranteed a clear run at the chancellorship in September. German party leaders are not automatically candidates for chancellor and the CDU is not set to name its candidate until Easter. Waiting in the wings are Markus Söder, the leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, and Mr Spahn, Mr Laschet's running mate. Both are considerably more popular with voters than Mr Laschet and both have both been on manouvres to secure the chancellor candidacy. But the CDU will be relieved the party leadership is finally settled. A new leader was supposed to have been elected last April, but the contest was twice delayed by the pandemic. In the end the party conference had to be held online, with delegates watching from their homes as the three candidates spoke in an empty television studio.