By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN (Reuters) - No fewer than 17 leadership candidates for Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) faced hustings on Wednesday with members deciding who they want to drag the party out of the doldrums and decide whether to quit government.
Germany's oldest party, divided over staying in conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition, is holding a protracted leadership race after its worst ever performance in elections to the European Parliament in May forced Andrea Nahles to quit.
German media are already poking fun at the SPD's 23 regional conferences for the candidates in the next six weeks, describing the tour as a "speed-dating" extravaganza.
The result of the conferences is due on Oct. 26 and if no candidate wins more than half the vote there will be a run-off. The new leader's formal election will be at the main party conference in December.
The pro-European party encouraged two candidates, preferably a man and a woman, to run on a joint ticket and stressed it wanted candidates from left to right.
Only one candidate is running alone. One pair dropped out immediately, leaving 15 candidates in the race.
The race looks fairly open. The highest profile candidate is Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who picked a relatively unknown female colleague from the former communist east, to run with. They are committed to the ruling coalition.
Scholz called for a wealth tax on the super rich, adding: "We must also cut taxes for those on lower incomes, for those who earn a normal wage."
Just off all time lows, the SPD is languishing in polls at around 14%, way below Merkel's conservatives and the Greens.
Many members are fed up with their party propping up Merkel, who has led Europe's biggest economy for the last 14 years - 10 of which have been with the SPD. They want the party to reinvent themselves in opposition.
"DAMNED DANGEROUS TIMES"
Other leadership contenders include European Affairs Minister Michael Roth and a female partner, and left winger Ralf Stegner, one of the party's deputy leaders, who is running with former candidate for German president Gesine Schwan.
Both Scholz and Roth said the SPD was the party in Germany best placed to hold together the EU in an uncertain world.
"This SPD is the Europe party," Roth told the first hustings in Saarbruecken. "We're living in damned dangerous times. Democracy is under pressure. Authoritarianism is growing ... Our answer to Donald Trump is the United States of Europe."
Scholz added: "Only a strong social state and a strong Europe and a strong Social Democratic Party can ensure that the world doesn't drift apart and that we stick together."
The SPD pursued a policy of "Ostpolitik" rapprochement with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War before reforming Germany's labor market under Gerhard Schroeder, Merkel's predecessor.
While in coalition with Merkel, the party has struggled to distinguish itself from her conservatives, resulting in a loss of support and an existential crisis.
Also running for leader are Boris Pistorius, a minister in the Lower Saxony regional government, and Norbert Walter-Borjans, a former finance minister of North Rhine-Westphalia known for pursuing tax evaders with Swiss bank accounts.
The SPD is to review its role in government by the end of the year.
The party got something of a reprieve when it managed to remain the biggest party in an election in the eastern state of Brandenburg on Sunday, although it bled votes to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Greens.
(Additional reporting by Paul Carrel; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)