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Contender to lead Merkel’s party takes heat from rivals

FILE - In this Nov. 21, 2018 file photo Friedrich Merz, former CDU faction leader, left, Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn, center, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, General Secretary of the German Christian Democratic Union, all members of the German Christian Democratic Party, attend a CDU regional conference and present their concepts as candidates for the CDU chairmanship in Seebach, central Germany. Merz has been criticized by Spahn and Kramp-Karrenbauer for his comments on the growth of the Alternative for Germany, AfD, party. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer, file)

BERLIN (AP) — A top contender for the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party is taking heat from his rivals for saying that the party accepted the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany “with a shrug of the shoulders.”

Friedrich Merz has emerged after a decade away from front-line politics to seek the leadership of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. He is competing with CDU general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Health Minister Jens Spahn for the job, the new holder of which will be favorite to run for chancellor in Germany’s next election.

Kramp-Karrenbauer said Merz’s comments in a weekend radio interview were “a slap in the face for all those in the CDU” who have stood up against Alternative for Germany.

Spahn told Tuesday’s edition of the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung daily that “many thousands of CDU election campaigners and members have stood against the rise” of the party — though he added that “of course we bear a share of the responsibility” for it.

Merkel announced last month that she would give up the CDU leadership, a job she has held since 2000, but remain Germany’s chancellor for the rest of this parliamentary term.

The five-year-old Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has capitalized on discontent with migration and wider anti-establishment sentiment since Merkel allowed a large influx of migrants to Germany in 2015 and 2016. It entered the national parliament in last year’s election and now has seats in all the country’s 16 state legislatures.

In the CDU leadership race, Merz and Spahn stand for a more right-wing approach, while Kramp-Karrenbauer is closer to Merkel’s centrist stance. Merz and Kramp-Karrenbauer are considered the favorites

The comments from Merz’s rivals marked a sharpening of the tone in the initially harmonious leadership race, which will be decided at a party congress Dec. 7.

“Acting as though we could simply say or decide a certain thing and the fight against AfD would already be won is naive,” Kramp-Karrenbauer told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper.

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