BERLIN (Reuters) - The executive committee of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) has decided to postpone a party congress planned for Dec. 4 to elect a new leader, Secretary General Paul Ziemiak said on Monday.
The executive committee agreed it could not hold the meeting, which it had planned to stage in Stuttgart, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
"The current situation would not allow a party conference on December 4," Ziemiak told reporters.
The timing of the election of a new CDU leader by 1,001 delegates is now unclear.
Whoever wins will be in pole position to succeed Merkel, in power since 2005, as chancellor. She has said she will not seek re-election in federal elections due by October 2021.
So far, Armin Laschet, premier of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, erstwhile Merkel rival Friedrich Merz, and foreign policy expert Norbert Roettgen are running to be chairman.
Merz, who is leading in polls, said members of the "party establishment" were trying to prevent his election as leader by postponing the congress.
"I have clear indications that Armin Laschet got out the message that he needs more time to improve his performance," Merz told the Welt newspaper.
Merz said the party should hold a virtual congress and then a postal vote.
Senior party sources said a decision on the new chancellor candidate to represent the conservative alliance of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), could not be decided before state elections in March.
Ziemiak said the CDU executive committee would, if possible, decide at a Dec. 14 meeting on how to proceed on the congress, reviewing options including a digital party conference, though this would likely require a constitutional amendment.
The committee could also decide on the format at a meeting planned for mid-January. A digital conference followed by a postal vote was also conceivable.
"There is a consensus that a party conference with physical presence would be the best option," Ziemiak said.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in February she no longer wanted to succeed Merkel and would stand down as CDU leader.
(Reporting by Paul Carrel and Andreas Rinke, additional reporting by Michael Nienaber, editing by Thomas Escritt and Giles Elgood)