Chancellor or bust: Germany's Laschet fights for his political life

FILE PHOTO: CDU candidate for chancellor Laschet holds news conference in Berlin
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By Paul Carrel

BERLIN (Reuters) -Conservative chancellor candidate Armin Laschet won some time in a fight for his political future on Tuesday as lawmakers in his CDU/CSU alliance met to decide what to do after suffering their first national election defeat since 2002.

The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) narrowly beat the conservatives in Sunday's election, leaving Laschet, 60, to try to form a ruling coalition with the Greens and liberal Free Democrats (FDP) or else see his political career collapse.

He faces an uphill battle. The SPD, Germany's oldest party, won 25.7% of the vote in Sunday's election, ahead of 24.1% for the CDU/CSU - the conservative bloc's worst federal result.

Several senior party members have signalled that Laschet's days may be numbered and before the crunch meeting of CDU/CSU lawmakers conservative Economy Minister Peter Altmaier called for a "swift realignment in terms of personnel and content".

Laschet faced some harsh criticism at the meeting.

"It was a factual discussion with a wide range of views, there was certainly some disappointment ... Some things just have to be said openly," said Ralph Brinkhaus, who was re-appointed head of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group for six months.

"But in the end there was solidarity in a crisis and there was an overriding will to look forwards," he said, brushing off questions about Laschet's longer term future.

In a show of support Brinkhaus said Laschet should be involved in any exploratory talks on a coalition, but stressed that while the conservatives were open to talks, for now it was up to the Greens and FDP to decide which way to go.

Laschet, whose fortunes began to slide in July when he was caught on camera laughing on a visit to a flood-stricken town, got the go ahead on Monday from his Christian Democrats (CDU) to explore a possible coalition with the Greens and the FDP.

Markus Soeder, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavarian sister party to the CDU, also took a swipe at Laschet earlier, saying there was only a small possibility the SPD would not manage to form a government.

"At the moment Olaf Scholz clearly has the best chances of being chancellor," Soeder said of the SPD's candidate to succeed Angela Merkel, who plans to step down after 16 years in power.

Laschet only secured the conservative chancellor candidacy in April after a public contest with Soeder.

A survey by pollster Civey for the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper showed that 71% of Germans think it is wrong for Laschet to lay claim to the chancellery.

One CDU lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that if Laschet could not pull off a coalition with the Greens and FDP, he should go. The SPD hopes to talk to the same two parties this week about forming a three-way government.

(Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Alison Williams and Grant McCool)