BERLIN – Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party faces a tough test from its center-left rival when one of Germany's smallest states kicks off the country's year of elections this weekend — mirroring a wider political shift few expected just two months ago.
An oddly conventional right-left battle is taking shape in Europe's biggest economic power, amid widespread worries about the rise of populism fueled by the election in the U.S. of President Donald Trump and the rise of far-right parties in France and elsewhere.
After years of moribund ratings, the center-left Social Democrats have seen their support soar in polls since they unexpectedly chose Martin Schulz — a former European Parliament president, but a newcomer to national politics — as Merkel's challenger in late January.
Sunday's election for the state legislature in Saarland, a former mining region on the French border, is the first practical test for what has become known as the "Schulz effect" ahead of the national parliamentary vote Sept. 24, in which Merkel is seeking a fourth term.
"Schulz is seen at the moment as someone who doesn't come from the Berlin political establishment, and that is viewed positively," said Manfred Guellner, the head of the Forsa polling agency. "Whether that is sustainable, we will have to wait in see."
Schulz, 61, has focused on a classic, but often vague, center-left pitch of tackling economic inequality at home. He is highlighting his past as someone who failed to finish school, got a "second chance" after his dreams of becoming a professional soccer player collapsed and later served as a small-town mayor.
"Our program will be about fairness, respect and dignity," he said Sunday at a euphoric party congress that endorsed him unanimously as party leader.
In national polls, the Social Democrats — who trailed Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats by as much as 17 points in January — are now roughly level.
Merkel's party has run Saarland since 1999 and, until recently, looked sure to continue that run for another five years. But recent polls suggest conservative governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer faces a struggle to hold off the "Schulz effect," though her government is popular.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, like Merkel, leads a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats as her junior partners. Her center-left challenger, Anke Rehlinger, hopes to finish first and polls suggest she could win a majority for an alliance with the opposition Left Party instead.
Germany's multi-party system almost guarantees coalition governments.
Kramp-Karrenbauer is one of only five conservative governors in Germany's 16 states. Though Saarland is a political lightweight with just under 1 million people, losing her would be a dismal signal for the national campaign and for two bigger state elections in May — in Schleswig-Holstein and Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, both run by the Social Democrats.
In a pre-election gambit last week, Kramp-Karrenbauer said she wanted to prevent rallies in Saarland by Turkish officials in their constitutional referendum campaign — going further than Germany's federal government has.
The Social Democrats have struggled electorally since introducing labor market reforms over a decade ago that were credited with bolstering the German economy but turned off core left-wing supporters.
Their newfound support appears to stem in part from previous voters returning to the fold, and has weighed on the ratings of two left-leaning opposition parties. With Schultz's own outsider appeal, they have even taken "a few supporters who aren't dyed-in-the-wool right-wing radicals" from the nationalist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, Guellner said.
AfD, whose rise set the tone for German politics last year, looks set to enter Saarland's state legislature but with a relatively poor score of around 7 percent. Europe's migrant influx, which fueled stronger performances for AfD last year, has faded as an issue and the party is mired in infighting.
True to form, Merkel appears to be in wait-and-see mode. She has barely mentioned Schulz but has criticized signals that he wants to reverse aspects of his own party's reforms.
Other conservatives are more restless. They have painted Schulz as a populist deliberately talking down Germany's economic strength, noting that his party has been part of Germany's government for 15 of the last 19 years.
"He simply wants to create an atmosphere of discontent, so he can then give answers," Julia Kloeckner, a deputy leader of Merkel's party, told n-tv television this week. "And I think that is very populist."
"We should not talk Germany down just to run an election campaign with diffuse fears," she said.
While a fourth Merkel term no longer looks inevitable, her chances remain good. Guellner said there's no mood for change like the one long-serving conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl faced when he lost power in 1998.
"For many German citizens, Ms. Merkel is still a guarantor of stability and safety," he said.