BERLIN — Germany eyed a new political future on Saturday as Armin Laschet, leader of the country's most populous state, was elected to head Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing party before she steps aside later this year.

In his speech to delegates before the vote, Laschet presented himself as a unity candidate, drawing on the experience of the United States as an example of where more divisive politics can lead.

“Trust is what keeps us going and what has been broken in America,” he said. “By polarizing, sowing discord and distrust, and systematically lying, a president has destroyed stability and trust. We must speak clearly but not polarize.”

During an online convention where 1,001 party delegates logged on to decide who would steer them, Laschet won 521 votes compared with 466 for Friedrich Merz, a longtime Merkel rival who would have represented a shift to the right. A third candidate, Norbert Röttgen, went out in the first round of voting.

Of the three candidates to head the Christian Democratic Union, Laschet was seen as providing the most continuity with Merkel, who is more popular with the German public than ever.

Winning the race would normally make Laschet a shoo-in to be the party’s candidate in September elections and give him a fighting chance to replace Merkel as chancellor, but that is far from certain this time around.

Laschet’s position as party chief in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia won him the backing of mid-ranking party officials who decided Saturday’s race. Yet his somewhat bland leadership style has not set the broader electorate alight, leaving open the possibility that the party will end up fielding another candidate for the top job.

The uncertainty underscores the challenge that the Christian Democratic Union faces as it attempts to chart a course without Merkel, who has said she won’t run in this year’s elections after more than 15 years as leader.

After winning the vote, the results of which will be confirmed only after returns from the formal postal ballot are counted next week, Laschet said he wants to ensure that the party fields “the next chancellor” in the federal election, in an indication that he may cede the nomination to run.

The Christian Democratic Union must decide on its candidate for chancellor jointly with its smaller sister party, the Christian Social Union, whose leader, Markus Söder, enjoys Merkel-level approval ratings and has been touted as an alternative candidate for the elections.

While Laschet’s handling of the pandemic in North Rhine-Westphalia has been seen as flailing, Söder’s perceived steady hand has won him plaudits.

A consensus has been building within the party not to finalize a candidate for the federal elections until the spring, minimizing the time they have to run in parallel with Merkel’s leadership.

Her protegee, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, took over from Merkel as leader of the party in 2018 with a view to being its next candidate for chancellor. But she was forced to resign last year amid political scandals.

Delaying the decision until spring also means it will come after key state-level elections, a test for the party in the polls.

Whoever the party does field in the election has a good chance of becoming Germany’s new leader. The Christian Democratic Union had been jettisoning voters to the far right but reversed its losses over the past year, gaining around 10 percentage points in the polls. It is now seen as the country’s strongest party ahead of national elections in September.