BERLIN (Reuters) - Senior members of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government, on Sunday rejected as nonsense reports that the party's leader Sigmar Gabriel was preparing to step down.
Helmut Markwort, co-publisher of magazine Focus, sparked a flurry of media speculation when he told a German television program he had heard from reliable sources that Gabriel planned to hand in his resignation this week.
"Mr Markwort has presumably had too much sun in Munich," SPD Deputy Chairman Ralf Stegner told Reuters.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas also dismissed the rumor.
"I think it's such a load of hogwash that you can't even properly deny it," he told broadcaster ARD.
Gabriel has struggled to impose his leadership credentials before next year's federal election. Many in his party openly doubt that he should stand as their candidate for chancellor.
He scored 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 capitalize on infighting among 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 favor 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.
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.
The former teacher, who is also economy minister, was forced to cancel a trip to Iran last week due to illness. This was a blow for German companies that had seen the event as a potential catalyst for increasing exports to Iran.
Still, most pundits are betting on him still 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," Maas told ARD.
Gabriel, a powerful speaker, has become more outspoken in recent weeks. On Saturday, he urged euro zone 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.
(Reporting by Holger Hansen and Caroline Copley; Editing by Richard Balmforth)