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German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a joint press conference during the EPP Groups Bureau meeting (European People's Party) in Berlin, on Sept. 9.STEFANIE LOOS/AFP/Getty Images

Angela Merkel said on Thursday nobody in her conservative bloc ever doubted that they faced a tough battle to hold the chancellery after her 16 years in office, declining to speculate on the outcome of Germany’s Sept. 26 national election.

“That after 16 years one does not automatically … return to the chancellery, that was clear to everyone in the CDU and CSU,” she told a news conference, adding she anticipated a closely fought election.

Merkel is not running for a historic fifth term in the election, and Armin Laschet, the conservatives’ candidate to succeed her, is struggling in polls, which show Finance Minister Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats in the lead.

CDU grandees backed Laschet in April as the conservative chancellor candidate ahead of Markus Soeder, the more popular leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU. The two parties – ‘the Union’ – run jointly in federal elections.

After losing the conservative candidacy, Soeder jibed at the CDU before coming around to supporting Laschet. But now frustration is boiling over in the Bavarian camp at Laschet’s failure to resonate with voters.

“Of course, we would be in a better position with Markus Soeder,” CSU General Secretary Markus Blume told Der Spiegel news magazine. “The continuing high approval ratings for Markus Soeder show what potential we actually have as a Union.”

Laschet later responded calmly to Blume’s comment: “There are many in the CSU who support me, including Markus Soeder.”

But Laschet’s promise of “steadfastness” is failing to draw voters worried about climate change, immigration and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, Scholz, the second most powerful figure in the ruling ‘grand coalition’, is pitching himself as the candidate best placed to continue the course set by Merkel, who is still very popular with voters.

Asked by a reporter what she valued about Scholz, she said: “What I most value about Mr Scholz is that when he and I agree on something, we both stick to our commitments.”

With her conservatives trailing Scholz’s Social Democrats in polls, Merkel made an impassioned plea to German voters on Tuesday to back her would-be centre-right successor Laschet at the election.

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