By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN (Reuters) - A former arch-rival of Angela Merkel vowed a new start for her struggling conservative party as he lined up on Tuesday against a German state premier as the latest aspiring candidates to take over her troubled Christian Democrats (CDU).
The CDU plans to pick a new leader at a congress on April 25
in hope of resolving a crisis rattling its long hold on power.
Friedrich Merz became the third official candidate after Armin Laschet, premier of Germany's most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, joined the race with the support of Health Minister Jens Spahn, who had been expected to run himself.
Last week Norbert Roettgen, head of parliament's foreign affairs committee, unexpectedly threw his hat into the ring.
The CDU succession debate was triggered two weeks ago when leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced she would no longer seek to succeed her mentor Merkel after an outcry over a regional party branch flirting with the far-right.
"We have today the alternatives of continuity and a new start," said the pro-business Merz, 64, who lost out to Kramp-Karrenbauer in a 2018 leadership vote.
Laschet is widely seen as the continuity candidate but by teaming up with Spahn, a fierce critic of Merkel's 2015 open-door migrant policy, he may appeal to some on the CDU's right wing.
"The CDU is bigger than either one of us, this is about the future of our country and the CDU," said Spahn, adding it was time to build bridges after past differences with Laschet.
Merz quickly took aim at his rivals for ganging up on him.
"It's not for me to rate the pair, but in real life perhaps one would talk about the formation of a cartel that weakens competition - but it is all right and legitimate that they are doing that," he told reporters.
WORKING WITH MERKEL
Pledging to focus more on education and digitalisation, Merz also made tackling right-wing radicalism a priority.
Merkel, 65, chancellor of Europe's biggest economy for almost 15 years, has said she will not run again in the next federal election, due by Oct. 2021.
It is unclear if she will be able to remain chancellor with a new party leader although Kramp-Karrenbauer has said the CDU expects the new chair to work alongside the chancellor.
Laschet said Merkel's government, which governs in coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), was elected until the end of the term in autumn 2021 and there would be no cabinet reshuffle now.
"We are focusing on the time after 2021 in terms of new ideas," he said, adding that the decision on who will run as chancellor for the conservative bloc also depends on the CDU's sister party in Bavaria.
They may prefer to have their own leader, Markus Soeder, as the chancellor candidate.
Merz was vaguer about working with Merkel, saying they would come to an understanding.
However, Merkel, a strong critic of Merkel's centrist tenure who attracts support from the CDU's right wing, said he didn't want to turn back the clock on the last 15 years.
"Germany is in a good position despite all the problems. But we need some corrections," he said.
(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, Michelle Martin and Paul Carrel; Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Michelle Martin and Mark Heinrich)