(Bloomberg) -- Angela Merkel won firmer control over her final years as chancellor when her handpicked successor took over as leader of Germany’s biggest political party.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, edged out Friedrich Merz, a Merkel antagonist and conservative champion, to become chairwoman of the Christian Democratic Union at the party conference in Hamburg. The outcome of the vote was another defeat for the clique of old, white men who’ve repeatedly tried -- and failed -- to knock the chancellor off her centrist course through almost two decades as head of the CDU.

After the result was announced, a beaming Merkel grasped her tearful protegee to congratulate her.

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, another Merkel ally, said the decision was an endorsement of Merkel’s plan to stay in the chancellery until her fourth term ends in 2021.

"We need and we want a stable government," she said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on the sidelines of the meeting.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, often referred to as AKK, becomes the CDU’s second successive -- and second ever -- female leader and de facto chancellor in waiting. Opinion polls suggest the party is likely to head into the next election cycle as favorite.

Backing Merkel

Despite concerns during the campaign that her closeness to the weakened chancellor could prove a liability with the party members, the new leader immediately declared her allegiance.

“The party conference made clear today that it wants Angela Merkel to stay,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said. “That’s also my personal wish.”

All the same, she faces a challenge in winning round the party’s conservative wing after beating their candidate with less than 52 percent of the vote.

Some of Merz’s biggest supporters were among the industry groups such as the MIT association of small- and medium-sized businesses and MIT director Carsten Linnemann, a CDU lawmaker, said he’d already heard from association members who vowed to leave the party.

“AKK must now quickly make sure that we are regaining voters whom we have lost,” Linnemann said. “But I fear that will take some time.”

Managed Transition

As Kramp-Karrenbauer looks to bring together her divided party, Merkel’s attention may shift to other factors that could still bring her fourth-term government to an early end -- her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, are facing pressure from their members to pull out of the alliance that has cost them support among voters.

If the Social Democrats hold up, Merkel may eventually face pressure to step aside early to give her successor a clear run at the next election.

“At some point, the two women will put their heads together and work it out between themselves,” Thomas Heilmann, a CDU lawmaker, said in an interview.

--With assistance from Matthew Miller and Elena Gergen-Constantine.

To contact the reporters on this story: Patrick Donahue in Hamburg at pdonahue1@bloomberg.net;Arne Delfs in Hamburg at adelfs@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Tony Czuczka

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