Critics of Merkel coalition win German SPD leadership vote

Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans gesture after being announced by Rhineland-Palatinate State Premier Malu Dreyer as winners of a Social Democratic Party members’ ballot for leadership in Berlin, Germany, November 30, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

BERLIN (Reuters) – Opponents of the coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives won a vote for the leadership of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) on Saturday, raising questions over the future of the government.

The SPD said Norbert Walter-Borjans and his running mate Saskia Esken won about 53% of the vote by members. The pair have said they want to renegotiate the coalition deal to focus more on social justice, investment and climate policies.

If Merkel’s conservatives refuse to co-operate, a snap election or a minority government could be triggered – unappealing options for both the SPD and conservatives. After 14 years of leading Europe’s biggest economy, Merkel has said she will not run again.

The duo’s SPD rivals, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and Klara Geywitz, from eastern Germany, won about 45%. They had widely been seen as forerunners.

The oldest party in Germany 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 government and rebuild in opposition.

After their election Walter-Borjans and Esken promised to try to unite and strengthen the party. Walter-Borjans also said a decision on the future of the coalition was not a stark choice between walking out now or staying in the long run.

“We have always said this is not just about whether we leave immediately or stay in for the duration,” he told Phoenix television, adding he intended to see which policies could be done with Merkel party and which could not.

SPD delegates are set to approve the leadership choice at a party conference starting on Dec. 6, where they will also vote on the coalition.

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

Additional reporting by Thomas Seythal; Editing by Toby Chopra and Mike Harrison

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