By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) will on Saturday announce the result of a ballot for a new leader to guide them out of months of turmoil and, in effect, decide whether to ditch their unloved coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.
Germany's oldest party is hovering in the polls just above the all-time lows it hit in June after its worst-ever performance in a European election prompted its leader to quit.
Since then, the SPD has been embroiled in a leadership race culminating in a membership ballot. If, as many pollsters tip, no candidate wins more than 50% on Saturday, a run-off vote will take place with the outcome expected at the end of November.
In December, a party conference will approve the choice. The SPD will also decide whether to abandon the coalition, a move that would probably trigger a snap election or minority government, both unsavoury options for stability-loving Germans.
Twelve candidates are running on joint tickets.
The highest profile, and probable frontrunner, is Finance Minister and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz - with a partner from the formerly communist east of Germany. But his commitment to Merkel's coalition limits his appeal among the rank and file.
Many of the SPD's 426,000 members are fed up with their party propping up Merkel, who has led Europe's biggest economy for 14 years - 10 of which have been with the SPD.
They believe the party has slumped badly in the polls by conceding too much to Merkel's conservatives on core policy and must reinvent itself in opposition.
ELEPHANT IN ROOM
Politics analyst Frank Decker at Bonn University said the SPD's efforts to play down discussion of the coalition during the leadership contest, which involved 23 hustings across Germany, was futile.
"How things continue with the grand coalition is a big issue with members and has been the elephant in the room in the leadership race," said Decker, adding opinion was divided but more members probably preferred to quit government than stay.
Both the SPD and Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) stand to lose in a snap election, while support for the Greens has more than doubled since the 2017 vote.
Two of the SPD candidate pairs clearly favor staying in government to push their agenda of social justice - Scholz and a duo led by Lower Saxony interior minister Boris Pistorius.
Two others pairs are clearly against it, including one led by Norbert Walter-Borjans, a little-known politician from Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. The other two duos, while on the SPD's left, are less explicit.
Most commentators tip the centrist Scholz, not known for his charisma, to win most votes thanks to his government experience and track record of winning elections in the city of Hamburg.
"I am from Hamburg, passion there is sometimes more sober. But I would not have stood if I didn't have passion. It is the passion for a fair, just society that has led me into the SPD," Scholz said in an interview with T-Online on Wednesday.
Forsa pollster Manfred Guellner said Scholz was probably ahead but doubted he would win outright on Saturday.
"The danger for him then is that members against him will back one leftist opponent in a run-off vote," said Guellner.
Whoever wins has a mountain to climb to revive the SPD.
Just off all-time lows, the pro-European SPD is languishing in polls at around 14%, way below Merkel's conservatives, on around 27%, and the resurgent Greens, and only just ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Mark Heinrich)