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German government wobbles after Social Democrat leader quits

BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed Sunday to continue with her government after the leader of the center-left Social Democrats, a junior partner in the coalition, resigned following a series of disappointing election results.

In a surprise announcement hours earlier, Andrea Nahles had announced she planned to quit, saying she wanted "clarity" after questions were raised about her ability to lead the Social Democrats. The party finished third in last month's European Parliament election, receiving 15.8% of the vote behind Merkel's center-right Union bloc with 28.9% and the Greens with 20.5%.

"The necessary support for me to carry out my duties isn't there anymore," Nahles said in a statement. The 48-year-old said she would be stepping down from her post as chairwoman of the Social Democrats and leader of its parliamentary faction in the coming days to ensure that her successors are found "in an orderly fashion."

Merkel voiced respect for Nahles' decision, calling her a "fine character" who she had worked with closely over the years. "Of course I also respect the decisions that the Social Democratic Party now needs to take," she told reporters in Berlin.

"We will continue the work of government, with all seriousness and especially with a great sense of responsibility," Merkel added, noting the numerous challenges that need to be tackled in Germany, Europe and beyond.

The leader of Merkel's party also sought to downplay the possibility that the "grand coalition" of Germany's two biggest parties would collapse. "I'm working on the assumption that the Social Democrats will now swiftly make the necessary personnel decisions and the grand coalition's ability to act won't be compromised," Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told reporters.

"We continue to stand by the grand coalition," she added. In a swipe at her own critics within the Christian Democrats, Kramp-Karrenbauer warned that "this is not the hour for tactical considerations within the party."

Nahles took over as party leader in February 2018, as the Social Democrats reluctantly extended their coalition with Merkel's conservatives following a poor showing in the previous year's German election.

While the Social Democrats have managed to push through their agenda of improving social welfare and working conditions for millions of Germans, voters haven't rewarded the party for it in the polls. Instead, many have turned to the environmentalist Greens, the far-right anti-migrant Alternative for Germany, the socialist Left party or Merkel's increasingly centrist Union bloc in recent years.

An election loss last week in a longtime bastion of the Social Democrats, the tiny northwestern state of Bremen, and the prospect of further defeats in upcoming regional votes in eastern Germany this fall has alarmed many in the party.

"The party is in an extremely serious situation," said Nahles' deputy Malu Dreyer, the governor of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. "If we don't manage to stick together and find a way out of it then things will look really bleak."

Dreyer told reporters in Berlin that senior party officials would meet Monday to discuss the next steps. Former party leader Sigmar Gabriel told the daily Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung that the Social Democrats needed a "detox" to prevent internal power struggles from further harming the party.

The Social Democrats had planned to hold a midterm review of the coalition with Merkel's bloc later this year, raising the prospect of an early end to the coalition. A recent opinion poll indicated that the Social Democrats may not have hit rock bottom yet.

The survey conducted last week for broadcaster RTL by the Forsa research institute found the Greens at 27%, ahead of Merkel's Union bloc with 26% and the Social Democrats at 12%. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Merkel, who handed the leadership of her Christian Democratic Union party to Kramp-Karrenbauer in December, has said she wants to stay on as chancellor until her fourth term ends when Germany holds its next national election in late 2021.

The Christian Democrats were meeting late Sunday to review their own election result, but that is likely to be overshadowed by discussions about the future of the governing coalition.

Follow Frank Jordans on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/wirereporter

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