BERLIN: German Social Democrat leader (SPD) Martin Schulz stepped down with immediate effect on Tuesday, hoping to put an end to the turbulence that has rocked the centre-left party since it agreed a coalition deal with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.
Schulz's deputy Olaf Scholz - the Hamburg mayor who is slated to become finance minister in the new government - said he would become caretaker SPD leader, and the party confirmed that it had recommended parliamentary floor leader Andrea Nahles as Schulz's longer-term successor.
Deeply divided over the coalition deal and the distribution of ministerial posts, and facing a slump in opinion polls, SPD leaders are trying to convince 464,000 party members to back the accord with Merkel in a ballot on which her fourth term depends.
With many SPD rank-and-file members harbouring misgivings about sharing power with Merkel again, the result of the vote, due on March 4, is wide open. If members reject the coalition deal, a new German election looks the most likely option.
Schulz said an extraordinary party congress would be held in the western city of Wiesbaden on April 22 to pick the SPD's new leader.
Nahles, a plain-speaking 47-year-old former labour minister with a left-wing slant and strong oratory skills, is frontrunner and would become the first female leader in the party's 154-year history.
Schulz said last week he would quit to allow the party to regroup and he recommended Nahles as leader but expectations that she would take over with immediate effect on a caretaker basis until a party conference triggered resistance as it breaches party procedure.
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In a cartoon on Tuesday, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily showed Nahles with a whip riding an SPD snail.
Schulz ditched plans to take the post of foreign minister after fierce criticism from some former allies, not least because he had vowed not to serve in a cabinet with Merkel.
That leaves open who from within the SPD may take up that post. Media have speculated that one option might be Katarina Barley, a former SPD general secretary and family minister, or SPD veteran Thomas Oppermann.
Germany, Europe's biggest economy, has been without a formal government since the Sept. 24 election and investors are worried about a delay in policymaking, both at home and in Europe.
The turmoil in the SPD can only distract from criticism of Merkel from within her own party after she handed the foreign and finance ministries to the SPD to secure the coalition deal.
An INSA poll published on Tuesday showed the SPD at a record low of 16.5 percent, only 1.5 percentage points ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Merkel's conservative bloc was also down 1 point at 29.5 percent.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers and Michelle Martin; Editing by Gareth Jones)