BERLIN (AP) – Members of Germany’s largest opposition party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, have chosen prominent conservative Friedrich Merz as their new leader, announced Friday the party.

The election of Merz with a strong mandate seems to mark at least a symbolic break with the The Merkel era. Making his third round for the CDU’s top job, he won 62.1% support in a party member’s ballot to beat two centrist candidates.

A party convention next month will have to officially sign the membership vote, but that should only be a formality.

Armin Laschet, head of the CDU since January, is stepping down after leading the bipartisan Union bloc to its worst electoral result in September, winning just 24.1% of the vote. The bloc, dominated by the CDU, was narrowly beaten by the center-left Social Democrats of the new chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Merz, 66, has experience of being a leader of the opposition. He led the center-right group in parliament from 2000 to 2002, when Merkel kicked him out of that post. He left Parliament in 2009, later working as a lawyer and heading the supervisory board of the German subsidiary of investment manager BlackRock.

Merz returned to parliament in the September elections. The online and postal ballot for some 400,000 CDU members was a first for the party. He said almost two-thirds of the members attended.

Merz’s rivals were left far behind in the poll. Norbert Roettgen, a former environment minister who has chaired Parliament’s foreign policy committee in recent years, finished with 25.8% support in his second candidacy for the party post.

Helge Braun, who was Merkel’s chief of staff from 2018 until she stepped down last week, won 12.1%.

Merz failed to win the party leadership by narrow enough margins at party conventions in 2018 and January, losing first to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and then to Laschet.

Both then struggled to impose their authority. A contest for the nomination as chancellor between Laschet and Markus Soeder, the leader of the CDU’s brotherly Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union, also revealed divisions.

Merz pledged on Friday to “defend the party to its full extent” and said he would work to ensure that “different opinions and political orientations” have their place.

“We will not engage in fundamental opposition,” he said. “We will be a constructive opposition.”

Merkel, who has firmly positioned her party at the political center, stepped down from the CDU leadership in 2018 and announced that she would not run for a fifth term as chancellor.

Merz promised his CDU would be a “modern” party. In an interview with ARD television, he dismissed the idea that it is a throwback to the 1990s, claiming that it is an “image that does not correspond at all to my basic philosophy, my attitude towards life and my political attitude “.

Lars Klingbeil, the co-leader of the Scholz Social Democrats, congratulated Merz and said he looked forward to “fair and democratic competition”.

“I think it’s great that there is a third chance culture in our country,” Klingbeil wrote on Twitter.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.