German finance minister Scholz to run for SPD leadership
By Joseph Nasr and Andreas Rinke
BERLIN (Reuters) - German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz will run for the leadership of the Social Democrats, a spokeswoman said on Friday, joining a race to revive the party's popularity sinking since it entered a coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.
A successful bid by Scholz to lead the Social Democrats (SPD) would bring more stability to Merkel's shaky right-left coalition, which the SPD entered reluctantly last year after a 2017 election.
"I'm willing to run if you want me to," Der Spiegel magazine cited Scholz as telling the SPD's three interim leaders in a phone call. It said none of them opposed his offer.
An SPD spokeswoman confirmed the report.
Scholz is the most high-profile candidate to join the race and a recent poll found he was the second-most favorite politician among Germans to become the next chancellor.
His popularity stems partly from his decision to stick to a balanced budget, a fiscal rule introduced by his conservative predecessor Wolfgang Schaeuble five years ago and cherished by German voters averse to debt.
The SPD has seen support almost halve to around 12% since joining Merkel's conservatives in government.
SPD leftists say voters are fed up with a party they feel has lost its way after serving 10 of the last 14 years as Merkel's kingmaker. They want their party to quit the alliance and rebuild in opposition.
Scholz has rejected such calls, saying his party was committed to serve the full legislative term until 2021.
The 61-year-old former mayor of Hamburg plans to run on a dual ticket with a female co-candidate, the SPD spokeswoman said. It is not clear who that will be.
An SPD source said Scholz also wanted to remain finance minister even if he were to become his party's leader.
Merkel, in power since 2005, has said she will not seek a fifth term and her protegee Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is expected to lead the conservatives in the next election.
The SPD in June appointed three caretakers to run the party when leader Andrea Nahles resigned after the party bled support in May's elections for the European Parliament.
SPD regional delegates representing the party's 400,000 members are expected to vote for a new leader at a gathering in December. The deadline to join the leadership race is Sept. 1.
SPD members Ralf Stegner and Gesine Schwan on Friday also announced their dual candidacy, saying they wanted to help extricate the party from an "existential crisis".
Merkel's coalition has been weakened by disputes over asylum policy, the fate of a former intelligence chief accused of far-right sympathies, and painful losses in regional elections.
The next test for the coalition is on Sept. 1, when voters in two eastern German states hit the ballot box in elections expected to see a dramatic surge in support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Polls show Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) are running neck-and-neck with the anti-immigrant AfD in Saxony, the eastern state the conservatives have governed since German reunification three decades ago.
The SPD are running behind the AfD in Brandenburg, a leftist stronghold they have also governed since 1990.
Some leftist members of the SPD have raised the possibility of quitting Merkel's coalition and leading a national government with the Greens and the far-left Die Linke, given that the three parties would have a majority in the Bundestag (lower house).
Merkel this week ruled out leading a conservative minority government if the SPD pulled out of the coalition. "I don't think this would be good for Germany," Merkel said.
There is little appetite for a snap election as both the conservatives and SPD are expected to see their share of the vote shrink from the 2017 election.
The Greens would see a spike in support and the AfD would also gain if a national election were held today, a poll by INSA showed earlier this week.
(Additional reporting by Holger Hansen and Michelle Martin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)