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Germany's Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz steps down amid party turmoil

Tobias Schwarz, AFP | Leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) Martin Schulz addresses a press conference at the Willy-Brandt Haus, the Social Democrats Party headquarters in Berlin, on February 13, 2018.

German Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz announced Tuesday he would quit as chairman of the political group, but because of party infighting his designated successor Andrea Nahles must wait to take the reins.


"The SPD needs renewal in its organisation, in its personnel, and in its programme," Schulz said as he announced his departure.

Schulz’s resignation was expected after he abandoned plans on Friday to take the post of foreign minister in a renewed coalition government with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives. Party members were outraged by his stated ambition for the role, despite his having previously vowed never to serve in a cabinet led by Merkel.

Nahles is facing similar opposition in her path to leadership.

Disgruntled party members say that she was chosen in an elitist backroom deal rather than through an open party vote.

Steve Hudson, a member of the party's #NoGroKo group (which stands for ‘no grand coalition’), stated that the leadership's single candidate proposal evoked North Korean politics. He added that the party "doesn't belong to a small group of top functionaries in Berlin who can do what they want".

The SPD leadership crisis comes only a week before 460,000 party members vote on the coalition deal with Merkel’s conservative bloc. Schulz urged voters to bring "the personnel debate to an end" with his resignation and concentrate on passing the deal.

In the meantime, deputy leader and Hamburg mayor Olaf Scholz has been chosen as the interim head of the party.

Nahles: a feisty party veteran

If she is elected at a special party congress on April 22, Nahles would become the first woman to lead the 153-year-old party.

"I would dearly like to take up the responsibility that I've been offered" in service to party and country, Nahles later told journalists.

The 47-year-old former labour minister is known for her blunt and passionate manner, including a fiery speech at a special party conference in January that was credited with swinging support towards a coalition agreement. But it has got her into trouble in the past, and she has faced criticism for her gutter politics.

Challenging Nahles for the top job will be last-minute candidate Simone Lange, the 41-year-old mayor of northern city Flensburg.

Bitter infighting

Germany's second-biggest party has been torn by bitter infighting and is deeply demoralised since it scored its worst post-war election result of 20.5 percent last September.

Its left and youth wings and some regional chapters are in open revolt against SPD plans to again govern as junior partner to Merkel.

With Schulz’s political career in tatters, Nahles looks set to claim the poisoned chalice of reviving the spirit and electoral prospects of the party.

A poll in Bild daily said support for the SPD had sunk to a record low of 16.5 percent, only 1.5 percentage points ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Nahles’ election would mean that, along with Merkel, women will head both of Germany's two big mainstream parties   a move hailed by Mona Kueppers, who heads the National Council of German Women's Organisations.

"Within the SPD, too, the time is ripe for a female leader," Kueppers told AFP. "The fact that the party has competent women for the job has been well known for a long time."

The upcoming vote on the coalition deal represents the final step before Merkel can serve a fourth term.

If members reject the coalition, Merkel's only realistic options would be to form a minority government or seek fresh elections.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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