The conservative leader favoured by German voters isn’t even running in this week’s contest to head up Angela Merkel’s party, but he aims to play a pivotal role in determining its candidate to succeed her as chancellor, party sources say. He may even take on that role himself if the eventual winner of the imminent party vote to replace her flops, according to the sources inside the governing conservative alliance. Merkel, who steps down after federal elections in September, is heading into the last months of her tenure with her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) squabbling over how to position the party following 15 years of rule marked by her instinct to compromise. The CDU elects a new chairman on Saturday, but none of the three contenders impresses voters, leaving the party wondering how best to replace Merkel, a proven election winner who has become Europe’s predominant leader since taking office in 2005. Centrist Armin Laschet, arch-conservative Friedrich Merz and foreign policy expert Norbert Roettgen are battling it out. Merkel said last year Laschet, 59, had “the tools” to lead Europe’s biggest economy and most populous country, but voters find him uninspiring. Enter Markus Soeder. The burly, confident leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is voters’ choice conservative. He senses a unique chance to assert himself as a unifier, or else as chancellor candidate. “Soeder will either play the role of king, or of kingmaker,” a CDU Executive Committee member told Reuters. The three declared CDU candidates all differ from Merkel. Roettgen, 55, the eloquent chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, wants Germany to take a firmer stance with Russia and China. Merz, 65, has targeted European Central Bank policy and is less diplomatic. Laschet, who has polished his international profile, complains Berlin has taken “too long to react” to French calls for European Union reform. Soeder, 54, Bavaria’s premier, is a political chameleon who has shifted from the right towards the moderate centre of late, though remains an unknown on foreign policy. He plays coy about his ambitions – “My place is in Bavaria” has been his repeated refrain. But the Bavarian’s lieutenants are already manoeuvring for the CDU/CSU alliance, the “Union”, to pick the chancellor candidate most likely to win September’s election, rather than simply default to the CDU party leader, as is traditional. “A personnel decision will have to be based on this (criteria), regardless of who becomes the new CDU leader on Jan. 16,” Alexander Dobrindt, the CSU’s leader in the Bundestag (lower house of parliament), told a CSU gathering last week.