BERLIN (AFP)---Germany's opposition Social Democrats have picked Peer Steinbrueck, a feisty former finance minister, to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in elections next year, a newspaper reported.
Citing party sources, mass circulation Bild said the centre-left party had selected trained economist Steinbrueck, 65, to run against Merkel in the election to be held in September or October 2013.
Bild said Sigmar Gabriel, the head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), would propose Steinbrueck at a special meeting of the party.
Steinbrueck beat off competition both from Gabriel and another SPD heavyweight Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who ran unsuccessfully against Merkel in 2009, and his choice was seen by commentators Friday as the right one.
Polls show Merkel, 58, is expected to win a third term at the helm of Europe's top economy, with her conservatives holding a comfortable lead over the Social Democrats, but indicate a "grand coalition" as a likely outcome.
Some 38 percent of voters said they would vote for the chancellor's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian CSU sister party, compared to 29 percent for the SPD, a survey Friday for ZDF public television showed.
Germany was governed by a grand coalition of conservatives and the SPD during Merkel's first term in office from 2005 to 2009, during which Steinbrueck served as Finance Minister.
Merkel's spokesman noted Friday that she had both worked "very closely" with him, and been observed by him, but was heading into the campaign with no preference over who was fighting in the opposition's corner.
"She will go into an election campaign where she will make her conviction clear over what has been achieved under her chancellorship and her ideas for a bright German future," Seibert told a regular news conference.
"And she has absolutely no preferences as to the opposing candidate," he added.
While Merkel remains Germany's most popular politician, as the leader of Europe's effective paymaster, she has often been criticised for lacking a "vision" to lead the 17-nation eurozone out of its worst ever crisis.
She has also faced constant sniping from backbenchers in her own centre-right coalition questioning Germany's commitment to ever larger aid packages for stricken eurozone nations.
The ZDF poll placed Steinbrueck in third place of the country's most significant politicians, behind Merkel and second-placed Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.
Steinbrueck stands the best chance against Merkel in running for chancellor from among the three SPD leading lights, the same poll showed, but he still trails a long way behind the chancellor.
During his stint in the cabinet, the SPD politician landed himself in hot water abroad by his straight-talking style.
Perceived as fiscally conservative, he lashed out at British plans to slash VAT and boost debt as "crass" and "breathtaking".
He also provoked anger in Israel in 2007 when he ruled out a renegotiation of the Holocaust reparations deal between Germany and Israel.
However, political scientist Hans-Joachim Funke of the Free University of Berlin said: "Steinbrueck is the best possible choice."
"He has the benefit of dual skills in economic matters and on European affairs," he told AFP.
"The best choice", headlined Spiegel newsweekly in its online edition.
"Steinbrueck is burning, he is ready for the fight. With him, it's all or nothing," it added.
The Hamburg-born, father-of-three began his political career in the late 1970s under Helmut Schmidt's government.