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[BERLIN] Germany's vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel on Sunday dismissed as "nonsense" rumours he was about to resign as leader of the beleaguered Social Democrats, quashing the latest speculation about the party's leadership.
The co-editor of the weekly Focus, Helmut Markwort, had earlier gone on German television citing an unnamed source as claiming that Gabriel would shortly step down, leaving his post for Hamburg mayor Olaf Scholz.
But the SPD, the junior partner in chancellor Angela Merkel's grand left-right coalition government since 2013, swiftly denied the claims.
Mr Gabriel himself, who is also Germany's economy minister, told RTL television that talk of his departure was "nonsense" and had taken him by surprise.
He jokingly added that the claims reminded him of Mark Twain's famous response to an untimely obituary, when the author said reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.
"It's something like that with me too," he quipped.
Justice minister Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat, told public broadcaster ARD that "it is such nonsense that one can't even find the right way to deny it".
Other SPD sources contacted by AFP added to the denials.
Rumours have been swirling about who the SPD would field as its leading candidate for the 2017 general elections.
The party suffered a disastrous showing in state elections in March, when it scored behind the populist upstart party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in two out of three states.
Latest opinion polls by Stern magazine put support for the party at 21 per cent, after Merkel's Christian Democrats at 34 per cent.
On Sunday, Bild am Sonntag newspaper reported that Mr Gabriel was planning to postpone the announcement of the party's leading candidate for next year's general elections to next May, rather than in the beginning of 2017.
The delay would allow the party to take stock of next May's state elections for North Rhine-Westphalia - Germany's most populous state - before deciding whether it needed a drastic leadership shakeup, Bild am Sonntag reported, quoting an unnamed high-ranking SPD official.
Mr Gabriel had in October announced his intention of seeking Germany's top job.
"Of course I want to become chancellor, if the SPD decides to pick me for it," he told Stern magazine in an interview.