A close ally to German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been elected as head of the ruling CDU party. Armin Laschet takes over as Europe's biggest economy heads into a challenging year, with an election in September and management of the coronavirus epidemic. Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrat Union (CDU) party picked her ally Armin Laschet as its next leader on Saturday, in what was seen as a vote for "continuity".In the close race, Laschet, the state premier of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, triumphed over Friedrich Merz, who, while popular with the CDU's most conservative faction, has been struggling to shed his image as an out-of-touch traditionalist.A third hopeful, foreign affairs expert Norbert Roettgen, was knocked out of the race.Laschet's win on Saturday puts him in pole position to lead the CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party into a general election in September as their chancellor candidate, meaning he is in with a good chance of securing Merkel's job.Tools for the jobMerkel, who is planning to stand down after four terms and 16 years in the job, had previously said that Laschet "has the tools" to be chancellor.At the opening on Friday of the two-day congress, Merkel had signalled her opposition to Merz as she urged delegates to stay the centrist course. Germany extends Covid lockdownMerz had campaigned on a promise to shift away from Merkel's centrist path and steer right, writing in a column for Der Spiegel that a "happy 'carry on like this' is just as inappropriate as the vague claim to occupy the centre at all times".But delegates at the congress, pushed online because of the pandemic, were not swayed by the 65-year-old corporate lawyer.Hold society togetherInstead, they gave a late victory to Laschet, who pledged to continue with Merkel's more moderate course.In a speech minutes before the vote on Saturday, Laschet called for "continuity" and highlighted the challenge of retaining CDU voters without Merkel at the top."I keep hearing the phrase, 'You have to be prepared to polarise'. I say, no, you don't have to. Polarising is easy, anyone can do it," he said, adding that he wants to "integrate, hold society together".Laschet had been trailing in surveys in the run-up to the vote, but his promise to stay the course has struck a chord with a party keen not to rock the boat further in a year already filled with upheaval, like the Covid-19 pandemic.The 59-year-old is a soft-spoken political moderate with a reputation for pragmatism, and a sworn Merkel loyalist who famously stuck by the chancellor in 2015, when Germany opened its borders to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Syria and other hotspots.