Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a close ally of Angela Merkel, won a tight race to succeed her as party leader Friday, seeing off a longtime rival of the German chancellor, reports AFP

The contest, which required a runoff vote to secure a 52-percent majority for AKK as she is known, is expected to increase the likelihood that Merkel will be able to see out her fourth term until 2021.

AKK, 56, pledged to maintain continuity after 18 years of Merkel at the helm while opening up the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to more grassroots democracy.

In a brief, upbeat address before the vote that brought many delegates to their feet, she called on the party to reject the politics of fear as the far-right makes inroads in Germany and Europe.

“We must have the courage to stay the course against the Zeitgeist,” she said.

AKK beat corporate lawyer Friedrich Merz, 63, who had quit politics in 2009 after losing a power struggle against Merkel and long nursed a grudge against the more centrist chancellor.

The third candidate — vocal Merkel critic and current health minister Jens Spahn — lost in the first round.

Merkel, 64, had earlier mounted a staunch defence of her moderate course since becoming chancellor in 2005.

Accepting a lengthy standing ovation from delegates, many tearful and holding “Thanks, boss” placards aloft, a visibly moved Merkel said the party had won four national elections under her by holding fast to its principles.

“In difficult times we shouldn’t forget our Christian and democratic stance,” she said.

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