A new row threatened to destabilise Angela Merkel’s efforts to form a new government in Germany on Tuesday as inflighting broke out in her main coalition partner.
The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) are in crisis following their leader Martin Schulz’s decision to stand down because he had lost the confidence of the party.
Andrea Nahles, a 47-year-old former employment minister, is favourite to succeed him and become the first woman to lead the party, but a row broke out over attempts to install her without a contest.
Simone Lang, the relatively unknown mayor of Flensburg, a small city near the Danish border, announced she would stand against Ms Nahles in order to force a vote.
And three powerful SPD regional associations said they would block any attempt to appoint Ms Nahles as interim leader until an election can be held.
The dispute comes a week before the start of a postal vote by the SPD’s 460,000 members on whether to join a new coalition under Mrs Merkel.
Ms Nahles is planning to tour the country to persuade wavering party members to support the coalition deal, but it is not clear whether she will be able to do so as leader.
Meanwhile Kevin Kühnert, the leader of the party’s youth wing and chief opponent of a new coalition, has seized on the way she emerged as frontrunner without any meaningful debate as an example of the “old politics” he is trying to end.
Ms Nahles was named by Mr Schulz as his chosen successor last week. At the time he was still hoping to become foreign minister by giving up the leadership, a plan he had to abandon in the face of massive opposition.
Ms Nahles is still backed by most of the current leadership, and several grandees have stepped in to try to quell the debate.
“The SPD cannot remain leaderless. It was right when Martin Schulz proposed Andrea Nahles take over the interim leadership,” Malu Dreyer, the influential regional prime minister of Rhineland-Palatinate said.
“Each of us would be well advised to put the interest of the party and the country before their own ambitions. No more indiscipline in the SPD,” said Ralf Stegner, the regional SPD leader in Schleswig-Holstein.
But three regional associations led by the powerful Berlin local party have objected to plans to install Ms Nahles as interim leader. They say it is against party rules and one of the current deputies should step in until members can vote on a new leader.
A formal election will now have to be held after Ms Lange declared her candidacy yesterday. Virtually unknown outside her native Flensburg, Ms Lange said she was standing in order to force a contest.
“I am in favor of a grassroots candidate and I want to give the members a voice again and involve them properly in the decision-making process,” she wrote in a letter to the party’s national executive.
“This would be the first step to return the SPD to what it once was: a proud party of social justice.”