BERLIN — Helmut Geppe is the kind of guy embattled Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and front-running conservative challenger Angela Merkel should be clamoring to please before Sunday's general election.
The father of two lost his job as a machinist in east Berlin two years ago when his company folded because of cheaper competition from Eastern Europe. He has tried - unsuccessfully - to get a new job, even taking classes to qualify himself for other positions.
"People are scared about the future," says Mr. Geppe. "Politicians are telling us 'It will get harder and harder.' But they don't have any answers anymore."
So Geppe has decided to look for answers elsewhere. The search led him to a lively gathering held in August by the four-month-old Left Party, a curious mix of former East German socialists and disgruntled West German unionists that has shocked Germany's political establishment by rising to third place in the polls behind Mr. Schröder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Ms. Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Geppe liked what he saw, and the shifting loyalties of voters like him have put the major parties on notice.
Part populist, part socialist, the Left Party currently commands between 7 and 9 percent of the vote, ahead of the conservatives' possible coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Schröder's junior coalition partner, the Green Party. Should they retain their lead, they could force the CDU and the SPD into a "grand coalition," with Merkel as chancellor and Schröder's party as her junior partner - a prospect experts predict would halt the CDU's planned pro-market reforms because of political infighting.
Nothing would please the Left more.
Fundamentally, the Left Party is offering a radically different answer to the question of how Germany should reform its lethargic economy to remain competitive and grow jobs. Until now, the major parties have been telling Germans that cuts to the country's bloated social welfare system, tax reform, and a more flexible labor market are crucial to reviving the "sick man of Europe."
The Left Party, on the other hand, invokes terms like "social economic justice" to comfort voters like Geppe by suggesting alternatives to liberal reform.
"There need to be fundamental changes in the system," says Bernd Ihme, a Left Party official. "We don't want big business to think that it's not responsible for the well-being of the people."
The Left is strongest in the economically depressed East, where current polls show them commanding around 30 percent of the vote, several points ahead of both the CDU and SPD. The party's push for further tax hikes on the rich in order to finance employment programs, the education system, and the continuation of Germany's welfare system resonates with a region that lived under a socialist economy for more than 40 years.
"They have collected protest votes, and the votes of people who normally don't vote," says Uwe Andersen, a political science professor at Ruhr University.
Close to 5 million people, roughly 11.5 percent of the population, are unemployed in Germany, a figure that has moved steadily upward since Schröder won re-election in 2002. The modest reforms he has introduced have so far failed to deliver on the promise of new jobs. Widespread discontent pushed him in May to call for new elections, one year ahead of schedule.
Jens Höhne who started his own business with help from a self-employment program launched by Schröder's government, says he isn't sure if Schröder will get his vote again.
"The job market needs to be a lot more flexible," he says. "But there should also be some social justice in the economy."
The rest of the country is also struggling to figure out how much to change, a process not helped by the campaigns of the SPD and CDU, which don't want to alienate voters by appearing too radical in their reform concepts. The SPD has even moderated their pro-reform platform by quietly imitating some Left Party points, like the call for a minimum wage.
"[The SPD] are taking steps away from the Agenda 2010 and inserting symbolic, leftist elements," says Mr. Andersen. "If you look at it that way, the Left Party has already succeeded."