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Germany's Social Democrats to pick new leader to decide fate of Merkel coalition

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By Reuters
Germany's Social Democrats to pick new leader to decide fate of Merkel coalition

By Madeline Chambers

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) on Saturday choose a new leader whose first task will be to decide whether to quit their ruling coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, possibly triggering a snap election.

Germany’s oldest party is in turmoil after a run of dismal regional and European election results and a six-month long leadership race which has left them trailing in polls. Many members want to leave the government and rebuild in opposition.

However, that could prompt a snap election or minority government – both unsavoury options for the SPD and for the conservatives, who are embroiled in their own power struggle for the post-Merkel era. After 14 years of leading Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, she is not standing again as chancellor.

A 10-day ballot of the SPD’s 426,000 members ends on Friday. The choice is between two leadership duos who topped a ballot last month – one pair led by pragmatic Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, the other by a leftist critical of the coalition.

The outcome is unclear.

“What differentiates these candidates is their stance on the grand coalition – that’s what this is about,” said Thomas Jaeger, politics professor at Cologne University.

The highest-profile candidate is Scholz, a centrist who has stuck to his conservative predecessor Wolfgang Schaeuble’s fiscal rigour, and would continue the coalition with Merkel.

Widely seen as frontrunner, he and his little-known running mate have the backing of the SPD establishment and lawmakers.

Yet a surprisingly strong challenge has come from Norbert Walter-Borjans, a former state finance minister, nicknamed Robin Hood for cracking down on tax dodgers with Swiss bank accounts.

He and his leftist running mate want to renegotiate the 2018 coalition deal to focus more on social justice and investment – if necessary with a budget deficit.

The conservatives are reluctant to reopen the deal but want to stay in power until the 2021 election. Merkel appealed to her partners on Wednesday in parliament.

“There’s a lot still to do. I think we should carry on working for the whole term … I’m in,” she said.

Saturday’s announcement, due around 6 p.m. (1700 GMT), will be rubber-stamped by delegates at a Dec. 6-8 party conference which will also vote on the coalition.

Whoever wins faces a mammoth task. In 2017, the SPD’s share of the vote slumped to its lowest since 1933. It is now around 15% in polls, trailing the Greens and the conservatives and only just ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Gareth Jones)