With general elections in Germany less than a month away, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats are facing a tough time in the opinion polls, which show them running far behind the opposition Christian Democrats. Mr. Schroeder is also facing a challenge from a new leftist party that is wooing unemployed Germans, many of them traditional Social Democrat voters.
It is simply called the Left Party, and it is made up of former East German communists and disaffected Social Democrats. The new party's leaders are Oskar Lafontaine, a former Social Democrat finance minister who fell out with Mr. Schroeder long ago, and Gregor Gysi, a telegenic onetime communist from the east.
Cobbled together only two months ago, this new hard-left party could decide the outcome of the September 18 election. If it gets the 10 to 12 percent of the vote that it now commands in opinion polls, Germany might end up with a hung parliament and political instability.
In East Germany, where 20 percent of the country's population lives, the Left Party is doing particularly well in the polls. It is the pick of more than 30 percent of the voters there, a higher rating than that of any other party. It appeals to those East Germans who share a nostalgia for the cradle-to-grave welfare state of communist times. It has also wooed voters disaffected by high unemployment in the east, many of whom were once thought to be supporters of populist far-right parties.
Now, the Left Party is making a push for voters in West Germany, where there is similar frustration over Mr. Schroeder's limited cutback of unemployment benefits among working class voters. The party's message is simple. It wants to levy higher taxes on the rich to bankroll expanded social programs for low-income Germans. It is also proposing a minimum monthly wage of $1,800 and a mandatory shortening of the workweek that it says will force employers to hire more workers.
Professor Peter Loesche, a political scientist at Goettingen University, says the Left Party is trying to reach out to all voters with its populist message.
"The new Left party is a very heterogeneous party," he said. "When you look at their electorate, you have the traditional GDR East German workers who still come out for the old traditional communist party. Then, you have potential right-wing voters, who used to vote for right-wing populist parties. And, at the same time, you have frustrated social democrats."
Most analysts and academics believe Germany needs more, not less, market-oriented policies to overcome stagnant growth and job creation. But the opinion polls show that a large portion of the German electorate disagrees enough to vote for the Left Party.
The rise of the Left Party makes the result of the election hard to predict. If the leftists woo enough voters away from both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, it might force the big parties, which disagree on almost everything of substance, into a so-called grand coalition. Most experts predict that such a coalition would not last long because decision-making would be hampered by endless rounds of negotiation between the groups.