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Schulz nominated by SPD as chancellor candidate (Updated)

Martin Schulz

Leaders of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) endorsed former European Parliament President Martin Schulz on Sunday as their candidate to run against conservative Angela Merkel in September’s national election, sources familiar with the decision said.

The decision will be formalised at a special party conference to be held in Berlin on March 19, the sources told Reuters.

About 35 members of the party’s executive committee voted unanimously for Schulz, 61, to become the party’s new leader and its chancellor candidate, the sources said.

The centre-left party in a surprise move on Tuesday had announced it was nominating Schulz to replace current party leader Sigmar Gabriel, who said he was standing aside to enhance the party’s chances in the Sept. 24 election. The decision was seen as a sign that the SPD is serious about ending its role as a junior partner in Merkel’s current right-left coalition.

German news magazine Der Spiegel portrayed Schulz as the party’s saviour on Sunday, carrying a photo on its front cover of a beaming Schulz with the headline “Saint Martin.”

A poll of 1,046 voters carried out last week showed Merkel’s Christian Democrats would get 34 percent of the vote if the election were held today, while the SPD would win 23 percent.

The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) would become the third largest party in parliament with 13 percent of the vote, according to the poll conducted by Ipsos.

The Greens would win 11 percent, with the Left party seen winning 10 percent, a slight increase from previous polls.

The SPD wants to form a coalition with smaller parties on the left, but most analysts still think another right-left coalition is the most likely outcome of September’s election.

Polls suggest that Schulz has a better chance than Gabriel, though still very small, of unseating Merkel, who has led Germany since 2005 and is Europe’s most powerful leader. Merkel’s grand coalition with the SPD has governed since 2013.

Merkel’s conservatives have been bleeding support to the AfD since the chancellor’s decision in August 2015 to keep Germany’s borders open to refugees, a policy that has seen more than a million migrants enter Germany over the past two years.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) said on Sunday that Berlin had made mistakes with its open-door policy and was trying to learn from them.

Merkel is due to meet with Horst Seehofer, head of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, on Sunday. Seehofer told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that his party would support Merkel as the conservative’s candidate despite differences over migration.

Schulz was a member of the European Parliament for over 20 years but is not a member of the German Bundestag.

Malu Dreyer, premier of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate and member of the SPD executive committee, said she was confident that Schulz would “give the party a real jolt.”

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