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Former European Parliament president Martin Schulz reacts after his speech at a meeting of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) at their party headquarters in Berlin, Germany, January 29, 2017, were Schulz was officially appointed SPD party leader. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

(reuters_tickers)

By Holger Hansen and Andrea Shalal

BERLIN (Reuters) - Former European Parliament President Martin Schulz vowed on Sunday to shake up German elections and unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel with a campaign aimed at overcoming "deep divisions" that he said had fuelled populism in Germany in recent years.

Schulz, nominated to lead the Social Democratic Party (SPD), told over 1,000 people at its Berlin headquarters he would fight for fairer tax rules, better education and to ensure that people in rural areas had the same benefits as in big cities.

But Schulz will be hard pressed in this year's elections to unseat Merkel, who has led Germany since 2005 and is Europe's most powerful head of government. She also remains very popular despite discontent over her immigration policies.

"A jolt is going through the SPD. We want to build on this momentum," Schulz, 61, said after the party's executive committee voted unanimously for him to become the party's top candidate in the September election. Party members will vote to formalise the decision in Berlin on March 19.

Schulz called for greater solidarity in Europe on the migrant issue and described the actions of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has resisted attempts by the EU to coordinate migration, as an affont to European unity.

SURPRISE MOVE

He criticised U.S. President Donald Trump for what he called "outrageous and dangerous" attacks on women, religious minorities, people with disabilities and others.

And he took aim at the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and its support for France's far-right National Front party, saying Germans had experienced during the Nazi era where "blind nationalism" would lead.

The centre-left party in a surprise move on Tuesday had announced it would nominate Schulz to replace current party leader Sigmar Gabriel, who said he was standing aside to enhance the party's chances in the Sept. 24 election.

Gabriel said the SPD was serious about ending its role as a junior partner to Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats in the "grand coalition" that has ruled since 2013.

"Germany needs a new start that cannot happen with the (conservative Christian Democratic) Union," he said. "We've come to the end of what we can achieve with a divided conservatives."

German news magazine Der Spiegel portrayed Schulz as the party's saviour on Sunday, carrying a photo on its front cover of a beaming Schulz with the headline "Saint Martin".

A poll carried out last week showed Merkel's Christian Democrats would get 34 percent of the vote if the election were held today, while the SPD would win 23 percent.

The AfD would become the third largest party in parliament with 13 percent of the vote, the poll conducted by Ipsos showed.

The Greens would win 11 percent, with the Left party seen winning 10 percent, a slight increase from previous polls.

The SPD wants to form a coalition with smaller parties on the left, but most analysts still think another right-left coalition is the most likely outcome of September's election.

Merkel's conservatives have been bleeding support to the AfD since the chancellor's decision in August 2015 to keep Germany's borders open to refugees, a policy that has seen more than a million migrants enter Germany over the past two years.

(Reporting by Holger Hansen and Andrea Shalal; Writing by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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