The Social Democratic Party (SPD)'s candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz knows how to work a crowd. The former bookseller learned the art of campaign meet-and-greets during his time as the mayor of Würselen, a little town near the Dutch border.
Mr. Schulz’s authenticity – politeness, humility and a good handshake with a smile – have been charming crowds in villages such as Saarlouis in the southwestern state of Saarland, which is in the midst of a regional election being considered a bellwether for Germany’s nationwide vote in the fall.
The election in Saarland will be the first major political test for Mr. Schulz on Germany’s national stage. The center-left Social Democrat has gone from small town mayor to chancellor candidate after a 20-year detour in Brussels as an E.U. lawmaker and then president of European Parliament.
Mr. Schulz’s return to Germany is breathing new life into the party, which until recently seemed condemned to political purgatory as the junior coalition partner to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
But in a matter of days, the Social Democrats have managed to close a 14 percent gap with Ms. Merkel’s party to just four points thanks to Mr. Schulz’s popularity.
If the SPD can upset the CDU in Saarland in March, Mr. Schulz’s candidacy would gain momentum.
A race once billed as a battle between the Merkel establishment and the right-wing populists of Alternative for Germany (AfD) over refugee policy has been transformed by Mr. Schulz into an old school left-right contest on economic inequality.
Mr. Schulz is positioning himself as the champion of working people, calling for higher wages and greater social security at a time when political and economic uncertainty is engulfing European neighbors and Germany's largest ally, the United States.
If the SPD can upset the CDU in Saarland in March, Mr. Schulz’s candidacy would gain momentum going into the important spring and summer campaign season.
The Social Democrat has directed his message at the 7.5 million people who are employed in precarious, low-wage jobs that pay the minimum wage of €8.50, voters who are considered vulnerable to the AfD’s brand of right-wing populism.
But the decision by Mr. Schulz, who remains an underdog in the race, to tack slightly to the left and run on a populist economic message has raised eyebrows in Germany’s business community, despite his support for the dead Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
The Confederation of German Employers' Associations (BDA) has pushed back against the mounting critique of the low-wage sector in a 30-page brochure sent to its members. The brochure, which Handelsblatt has obtained, points to Germany’s record levels of employment and its bumper budget surpluses.
“We are experiencing a record level of socially insured employment,” said Steffen Kampeter, managing director of the BDA. This success has been distorted by caricatures of the low-wage sector, he said.
The number of “normal positions” has risen by 11 percent to 24.8 million since 2006, according to the BDA brochure. By the contrast, the number of people working in the low-wage sector is stagnate at around 7.5 million.
“We don’t have growth in the precarious job sector, which is due to a tighter labor market that puts employees in a stronger negotiating position,” said Karl Brenke, a labor market researcher with the German Institute for Economic Research.
While the low-wage sector is not growing, it is not shrinking considerably either, Mr. Brenke said. For those people who remain stuck in this sector, Mr. Schulz’s populist platform – which is mostly platitudes at this point – may not really help much.
A married breadwinner with two children in Berlin, for example, would need to make €15 an hour to get by without state assistance, but not even the socialist Left Party – let alone Mr. Schulz's more moderate Social Democrats – has demanded a minimum wage this high.
Mr. Schulz may be in the honeymoon phase of his newly minted candidacy. But, in an era of political upsets and widespread frustration, Mr. Schulz's winning smile may just come out on top.