GERMANY – the identity of Germany’s next pensions minister has been thrown into doubt by yesterday’s resignation by Franz Müntefering as chairman of the social democrats (SPD).

Müntefering’s unexpected move followed a refusal by the SPD’s leadership to approve his choice for the post of party general secretary. Instead, the leadership nominated Andreas Nahles, a spokeswoman for the SPD’s left wing.

“I won’t run away from the party, but the fact is I can’t remain party leader under these circumstances,” Müntefering told a news conference after Nahles’ nomination.

“I haven’t decided whether I’ll serve in the next cabinet,” he added. “I’ll decide that once we complete the coalition talks.” He added that he would continue to be the SPD’s chief negotiator in the negotiations to agree a ‘grand coalition’ between the conservative CDU/CSU and the SPD under CDU head Angela Merkel as chancellor.

The original deadline for their completion was November 14, so that Merkel could be confirmed as head of the government and present her cabinet eight days later.

The SPD is now scrambling to find a successor to Müntefering to avoid a deepening of its leadership crisis. Likely candidates include Brandenburg prime minister Matthias Platzeck and Kurt Beck who heads the Rhineland Palatinate administration.

It is not clear whether Müntefering’s successor would take his place in Merkel’s cabinet should Müntefering choose not to serve in the next government. Müntefering was expected to add the portfolio of labour and social affairs, which includes pensions policy and responsibility for the state pension scheme, to his post as vice-chancellor.

On pension reform, the SPD and CDU/CSU have already agreed steps raise the official retirement age to 67 from 65 and freeze state pension benefits next year for the third consecutive time.

Müntefering’s surprise move has sent shockwaves through the German political establishment. If efforts to form a grand coalition fail, it is possible that a new election general would be held in March.

Edmund Stoiber, prime minister of Bavaria and CSU head, said today that he had changed his mind amid the new situation and would not serve as economic minister in Merkel’s government. Michael Glos, the CSU’s parliamentary leader will take his place is.