Reuters International

German Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel attends a news conference with Morocco's Minister of Energy, Mining, Water and Environment Abdelkader Amara during his visit in Rabat, April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

(reuters_tickers)

By Caroline Copley

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Vice Chancellor and leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) Sigmar Gabriel has made light of rumours he was stepping down, saying on Sunday that reports of his departure were exaggerated.

Helmut Markwort, co-publisher of magazine Focus, sparked a flurry of media speculation when he told a German television programme he had heard from reliable sources that Gabriel planned to hand in his resignation this week.

Gabriel, 56, who was forced to cancel a trip to Iran last week after reportedly suffering from shingles, dismissed the claim as rubbish.

"I was a little surprised that as a politician in Germany you may no longer be ill without someone spewing nonsense," he told broadcaster RTL in Stockholm, where he had been holding talks with the leaders of Sweden and Austria.

He recalled how U.S. author Mark Twain had published an announcement saying reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated.

"It's a similar thing with me," said Gabriel, who has been leader of the SPD since 2009.

Speculation about Gabriel's future as leader of the SPD has been brewing since he registered just 74 percent in a party delegates' vote of confidence last December - the lowest for an SPD leader in 20 years.

His party has struggled to capitalise on infighting among Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives over Europe's migrant crisis, and had a poor showing in regional elections in March as voters punished Germany's ruling parties in favour of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party.

A poll for Bild am Sonntag on Sunday put support for the SPD at 22 percent, even worse than the party's showing in the 2009 election when its vote slumped to a post-war low of 23 percent.

Many in his party openly doubt whether he should stand as their candidate for chancellor at next year's federal elections.

Still, most pundits are betting on him running in 2017 given the lack of clear rivals and apparent reluctance among top SPD officials to take on what is viewed as an unenviable position.

"Of course Gabriel is the one who will run as candidate for chancellor," Justice Minister Heiko Maas told broadcaster ARD on Sunday.

The former teacher has a difficult job. As deputy chancellor in Merkel's grand coalition, he has to show he is fit to lead the nation while also working out policies his party can agree to implement in tandem with the conservatives.

Gabriel, a powerful speaker, has become more outspoken in recent weeks. On Saturday, he urged eurozone finance ministers to start talks about possible debt relief for Greece, a policy Finance Minster Wolfgang Schaeuble opposes.

He has called on the government to invest more, rather than relying on the European Central Bank to promote growth, whereas Schaeuble has doggedly stuck to his goal of a balanced budget.

(Additional reporting by Thorsten Severin and Holger Hansen; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

reuters_tickers

 Reuters International