By Andreas Rinke and Paul Carrel
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will meet contenders to replace her as Christian Democrat (CDU) leader next week, she told Reuters on Wednesday, forging ahead with the succession process after senior party figures pressed for a swift decision.
Kramp-Karrenbauer gave up her ambitions of succeeding Chancellor Angela Merkel, her mentor, on Monday - a move that raised questions over the future of the conservatives' coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).
The CDU must now embark on finding a new leader and chancellor candidate for the next federal election, due by October 2021, to avoid leaving the world's fourth biggest economy and the European Union's leading power in a state of political limbo.
On Monday, Kramp-Karrenbauer said she would organise a process to fill both the party chief and chancellor candidate roles in the summer. But senior CDU party members, fearing a vacuum, have since pressed her to accelerate that timetable.
"We will start the personnel selection process next week. I have invited those whose names are currently circulating for one-on-one interviews," Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a television interview.
"At the moment, there are three names circulating in public. Whether more come forward, and what gender they are, we will see," she said.
Kramp-Karrenbauer's erstwhile rivals for the party leadership - Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn - and Armin Laschet, premier of Germany's most populous state and a Merkel ally, have been widely discussed in German media as the most likely contenders.
A source close to Merz said on Wednesday he planned to seek the party leadership.
Both Merz and Spahn are clearly to the right of the centrist, consensus-seeking Merkel and, if one of them wins and seeks to sharpen the CDU's profile before the next election, he might put pressure on her to step aside early.
That thought prompted the Social Democrats on Wednesday to say they could quit as junior coalition partner if Merkel is forced out as chancellor.
"PARTY OF THE MIDDLE"
Kramp-Karrenbauer pointedly said that "the CDU has always been a party of the middle ... As long as I can make a contribution to the CDU, I will fight for this course".
A decision on the succession could come before the summer recess. "I brought up the summer break in the executive committee," Kramp-Karrenbauer she said, adding that the speed of the process depended partly on talks with the contenders next week.
Resolving the succession issue by the summer would allow the government to take up its presidency of the European Union in the second half of the year without the leadership question hanging over it.
Arguing that Europe needed a "capable and stable Germany", Kramp-Karrenbauer said Merkel and her government were pushing on with preparations for Germany's six-month presidency of the EU, starting in July.
"We are now making a decision that is important for the CDU," Kramp-Karrenbauer said, stressing that she believed the party chair and chancellor candidate should be the same person. "Whatever the SPD takes from that is its business."
Kramp-Karrenbauer succeeded Merkel as leader of their CDU in December 2018, but struggled to stamp her mark on the party.
A series of gaffes eroded her authority, and her inability last week to impose discipline on the CDU in the eastern state of Thuringia - where the regional party sided with the far-right Alternative for Germany to elect a state leader - dealt a final blow to her credibility.
(Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Paul Carrel; Editing by Madeline Chambers and Kevin Liffey)
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