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Jitters for Merkel's coalition as SPD chief resigns

Andrea Nahles, who heads the centre-left SPD, has come under intense pressure after voters handed the party its worst European election results a week ago.

FILE: Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures as she addresses media representatives after a European Union (EU) summit at EU Commission Headquarters in Brussels on 28 May 2019.

BERLIN, Germany - The leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior coalition partner, the SPD, resigned Sunday from her party's top jobs, raising the possibility that Germany's embattled government could collapse.

Andrea Nahles, who heads the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), has come under intense pressure after voters handed the party its worst European election results a week ago.

With an eye on three key state elections in eastern Germany in September, the SPD had initially planned to re-examine its partnership with Merkel's centre-right CDU-CSU alliance in the autumn.

But ahead of a planned leadership vote on Tuesday, Nahles said she would give up her jobs as both party chief and head of its parliamentary group.

"The discussions in the parliamentary group and the broad feedback from the party showed me that the support necessary for the exercise of my offices is no longer there," said Nahles in a statement.

The 48-year-old said she hoped her resignation "would open the possibility that the succession can take place in an orderly manner".

Harald Christ, deputy chief of the SPD's economy forum, told the Bild daily however that Nahles's decision had put the future of the coalition in serious doubt.

"To all those who are happy today: it is a great loss for German politics. Nahles stands for the existence of the GroKo -- whose stability is now in question," he said, using the German short-form for grand coalition.

'WALKING UNDEAD'

Anxiously watching as the SPD tumbled into disarray, CDU heavyweights urged their centre-left partner not to endanger the coalition.

"The voter mandate is valid for four years and political parties must ensure stability in difficult times," the CDU's Bundestag deputy president Hans-Peter Friedrich told Bild daily.

"An early end of the GroKo would only benefit the political fringes."

Merkel's CDU itself was scrambling to retain voters after it too scored a record low in the European elections.

Her favoured successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was also struggling to put down a raging online youth revolt against the party, raising questions as to whether she is the best person for Germany's top job when Merkel leaves the political stage in 2021.

Following Nahles' bombshell, the CDU said both Kramp-Karrenbauer and Merkel would address the press later Sunday.

But the far-right AfD said the government was already disintegrating.

"Not only is the SPD dissolving, the GroKo too is walking the political stage only as one of the undead," wrote the co-leader of the AfD's group in parliament, Alice Weidel, on Twitter.

Some newspapers reached similar conclusions.

Bild daily noted that "the SPD is bleeding to death. The GroKo too". And the Sueddeutsche daily predicted that "the coalition has come to an end.

"The Social Democrats have just defeated the woman who with great effort brought the alliance together. What's the point now then of continuing to torment themselves with this?"

UNEASY PARTNERS

The alliance between Merkel's Christian Democrats and the SPD was fragile from the start.

Stung by a election beating in 2017, the SPD had initially sought to go into opposition.

But it was reluctantly coaxed into renewing a partnership with Merkel, even as many within the party remained wary of continuing to govern in her shadow.

After former EU parliament chief Martin Schulz's failed attempt at reversing the fortunes of the party, the SPD in April 2018 turned to Nahles, picking her as its first female leader.

With her lectern-thumping speeches, Nahles, the daughter of a bricklayer, had sought to woo back voters who had deserted the party complaining that it was moving too far away from the left.

But the free-fall in the SPD's ratings could not be halted.

After last Sunday's election drubbing, the party has been staring at the prospect of another rout in three upcoming state polls in Saxony, Brandenburg and Thueringia, where the far-right AfD is poised to make significant gains.

With its anti-immigration campaign, the AfD in 2017 drew voters angry with Merkel's decision to let in more than a million asylum seekers into Germany.

But it is now the Greens which may have become the biggest headache for the SPD.

While sharing the centre-left position on the political spectrum, the Greens are proving more attractive to young voters because of their environmental platform.

In a national survey released Saturday, the Greens came in top for the first time -- enjoying more support than Merkel's CDU-CSU alliance. They had a lead over the SPD of around 15 percentage points.

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