Germany's Social Democrats have rallied behind their leader, endorsing policies on investment, social justice and the European Union.

They hope the decision will reverse a slump in opinion polls and end Chancellor Angela Merkel's 12-year hold on power in September’s general election.

At a party conference on Sunday in Dortmund, Martin Schulz, the Social Democrats (SPD) leader, accused Merkel of silencing debate on issues such as pensions and failing to stand up to the US.

The SPD surged in the polls after naming Schulz as leader in late January, overtaking Merkel's conservatives in some, but those gains have now evaporated and the party is struggling to regain momentum.

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An Emnid poll on Sunday showed Merkel's conservatives widening their lead to 15 points.

In an 80-minute speech before the party agreed its policy manifesto, Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, was most passionate on Europe.

"Merkel and [Wolfgang] Schauble [finance minister] were very firm when it came to policies like austerity in Europe, but you hear little to nothing from them about the rule of law and democracy in the EU," he said, taking aim at Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland.

He said the SPD aims to strengthen Europe by stressing the values of human dignity and by investing in innovation.

Labour Party model

The chances of denying Merkel a fourth term look slim for the SPD, who are currently junior partners in her right-left coalition.

But some have been inspired by the resurgence by Britain's Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn in a June 8 vote.

"What we can learn from the British is that we won't let ourselves be depressed by polls. We will fight for our own convictions," Hubertus Heil, SPD general secretary, told Reuters news agency.

Like Corbyn, Schulz has succeeded to some extent in appealing to younger voters. Roughly 40 percent of members who have joined since Schulz's nomination are under 35, says Jusos, the youth branch of the SPD.

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"Away from the talk, the party's picture looks bleak," said Al Jazeera's Dominic Kane, reporting from Dortmund.

The reality of having lost power in two state elections and failing to win in a third this year has hurt morale despite the cheers and red flags emblazoned with "Time for Martin Schulz" slogans evident in Dortmund on Sunday.

To have any chance of winning in September, the SPD needs to mobilise traditional supporters, who have either not voted or shifted allegiance in the past few years.

Campaign focus

Schulz has focused much of his campaign on social justice. He wants to reduce taxes for low-and middle income earners, keep pensions stable, extend free education and invest more in infrastructure.

He has, however, disappointed some on the left by refusing to commit to a wealth tax.

To defuse an embarrassing showdown on Sunday, the party is appointing a commission to look into it.

The SPD conference featured ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the last Social Democrat to lead Germany, to boost morale.

He said they could still win and reminded them of the SPD's fightback to run Merkel close in the 2005 election - the last one he fought.

Germany poll - Source: Emnid via Wahlrecht  
 

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

Europe, Germany, Politics