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SPD denies rumors over Sigmar Gabriel's resignation as party leader

The deputy leader of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), Ralf Stegner, has dismissed reports of the resignation of party chairman Sigmar Gabriel. There have been growing concerns over Gabriel's health in recent weeks.

Ralf Stegner's denial of the rumors on Sunday came hours after Helmut Markwort, editor of German news magazine "Focus," claimed on Bavarian television that he had "heard from a reliable source that the SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel wants to step down."

"Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg, will be the new chairman of the SPD, and there is talk that Martin Schulz of the European Parliament is to be the main candidate for the chancellery. So Schulz and Scholz instead of Gabriel," Markwort said.

Stegner mocked Markwort on Sunday, however, tweeting that the journalist had "probably gotten a little too much sun in Munich."

"Whoever has such 'good sources' is washed up," Stegner added in a second tweet. Other SPD representatives also branded the claims as absurd.

Federal Justice Minister and fellow Social Democrat Heiko Maas said during "Bericht aus Berlin" - a program broadcast by ARD - that "so much nonsense" doesn't even need to be denied.

The online quibble over the rumors on Sunday came as German newspaper "Bild" reported that Gabriel was reportedly suffering from shingles as a result of stress. The vice chancellor and

economics minister also canceled a planned trip to Iran last weekend,

increasing speculation within the SPD about his health.

Year-long wait for SPD chancellery candidate

"Bild am Sonntag" also reported on Sunday that the SPD won't be nominating their candidate for the 2017 federal election until after the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia in mid-May next year. The decision reinstates Gabriel's belief that the election campaign should be fast and brutal.

According to "Bild am Sonntag" the decision has received mixed reactions within the SPD camp, with the chancellery candidate originally expected to be announced in early 2017.

Asked in March whether he would run for the chancellery himself, Gabriel said: "We'll decide that when it comes to it."

According to

a survey published last week by Pollster Infratest dimap, support for the SPD

is at its lowest since 1997, with the Democrats garnering just 20 percent of the vote. For Gabriel himself, the results were even more alarming, with only 38 percent of voters reportedly supporting the German vice chancellor.

Wolfgang Schäuble and Sigmar Gabriel

Wolfgang Schäuble and Sigmar Gabriel

Calls for Greek debt relief

As the eurozone's 19 member states prepare to meet in Brussels on Monday, Gabriel urged finance ministers on Saturday to begin talks on debt relief for Greece.

"The euro group meeting on Monday must find a way to break the vicious circle," Gabriel said, adding that "it doesn't help the people and the country to have to fight every 12 months to get new credit to pay off old loans."

Having been bailed out three times, Greece now needs to make an overdue payment of some 5 billion euros to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The IMF has called on Greece's European partners to grant Athens substantial relief on its debt, which it sees as vital for its long term sustainability. Germany's hardline Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble opposes any debt relief, however, arguing that it isn't necessary.

kb/jm (Reuters, dpa)

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