Germany's ailing Social Democrats (SPD) have named Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in federal elections in 2009.
Polls show Steinmeier is a popular politician but he has never won elected office
Germany's Social Democratic Party, languishing in opinion polls and riven by divisions, overhauled its leadership a year ahead of federal elections, at a meeting of top party leaders near Berlin on Sunday, Sept 7.
The party nominated Steinmeier to run against incumbent Merkel in September 2009 and, in a surprise move, summoned back as chairman veteran Franz Muentefering.
Making the announcement in Werder, south-west of Berlin, Steinmeier said Kurt Beck, the long-serving premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, who has led the party since 2006, had resigned as chairman.
Steinmeier, who spoke of a "difficult day" for the party, is to serve as interim chairman until the SPD formally votes in Muentefering at an extraordinary general meeting to be held in the weeks ahead.
The SPD shares power with Merkel's conservatives in an awkward coalition.
"The election campaign does not begin today, but we are now in the game of catching up for the 2009 federal election," Steinmeier,52, said as he accepted his party's nomination.
Beck's resignation a surprise
The party was better equipped than many believed and was ready for the election campaign, Steinmeier said.
Beck stepped down
"We do not want anyone to be marginalized in our society," he said, signaling that the SPD, threatened by the rise of a new far-left party, aims to focus on social issues during the campaign.
Although it had long been anticipated that Beck would yield to Steinmeier as the candidate for chancellor, his resignation as SPD federal head took observers by surprise.
Steinmeier regularly tops the polls as the most popular German politician, although he lacks Beck's political credentials within the SPD.
Muentefering, 68, resigned as deputy chancellor last year to care for his terminally ill wife. He was party chairman in 2004-05.
A return to Schroeder's program
Steinmeier, who took over as deputy chancellor under Christian Democrat Chancellor Merkel, is seen as on the right of the SPD.
As a close confidant and chief of staff to Merkel's predecessor, former SPD leader Gerhard Schroeder, he is closely associated with Schroeder's Agenda 2010 economic reform program that is rejected by many on the SPD's left wing.
Muentefering returns as party chairman
Steinmeier's nomination to lead the party into the Sept. 27 elections next year comes at a time when the SPD, the traditional party of the German left, has slumped at the opinion polls. Support for the SPD now hovers at around 26 percent, 10 percentage points behind Merkel's conservative camp.
Challenge from the Left
Since last year, the SPD has faced an increasingly strong challenge on the left from the newly formed Left party, which has its main support base in the formerly communist eastern states but has also made strong inroads in western states.
Following his wife's death, Muentefering signaled his comeback last week with a rousing speech to SPD members in Munich, ahead of elections in the southern state of Bavaria at the end of this month.
Another close Schroeder associate, he made clear his backing for the Agenda 2010 program in his address, calling on SPD members to be proud of the program's achievements in cutting unemployment and blancing a budget deficit by 2011.
On Saturday, Merkel lashed out at the SPD, the junior partner in her grand coalition government, calling the party "unreliable." The chancellor said she hoped the CDU/CSU will be able to form a coalition with the minority liberal FDP following the next elections.