Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats, the ruling coalition in Germany’s Bundestag, each suffered heavy losses in the country’s federal elections in late September.

The Social Democrats’ vote fell to a historic low of 20.5 percent, and the party announced that it would not be a junior partner in another coalition government. Merkel, who led the CDU to its worst result (33 percent of the vote) since 1949, now must negotiate with smaller parties the Greens (9 percent) and the Free Democratic Party (10.7 percent) to form a governing majority.

The most significant development was the breakthrough 12.6 percent for far right Islamophobic party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is now the third largest force in the Bundestag. Die Linke, to the left of the Social Democrats, though not achieving the third party status it had hoped for, gained a small swing and received more than 9 percent of the vote.

The results are part of a general trend in Europe. Phil Butland, speaker of Die Linke Berlin Internationals group and a member of marx21, told Red Flag, “The move away from the centre has benefited parties of both the left and the right, depending on local circumstances. In Greece, Spain and Ireland, left parties like Syriza, Podemos and People Before Profit could poll very good results”.

In other countries, such as Austria, France and now Germany, the right has made greater gains. The AfD vote was, according to Loren Balhorn, a Die Linke member in Berlin, a “classic protest vote tinged with racist sentiment, overshadowed as all German politics are these days by the so-called refugee crisis”.

The AfD’s election result is historic. For the first time since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949, an extreme right wing racist party with a strong neo-fascist wing has made it into the Bundestag. More than half the party’s MPs are Nazis. “This neo-fascist wing has increasingly become more powerful, and seems to pull former CDU figures like Alexander Gauland [the AfD leader in Brandenburg] further to the right”, Balhorn said. “So far they are maintaining outward unity, but the exit of [AfD co-leader] Frauke Petry and now her lieutenant Mario Mieruch suggest that more turbulence is on the horizon.”

The AfD fared well in Germany’s east – in Saxony it polled ahead of the CDU – where there are higher rates of unemployment in areas that are mostly white, provincial and suffering economic decline. It won support from all classes of society, workers and trade unionists included (15 percent of trade unionists voted AfD).

The AfD did best where Die Linke did worst. In the eastern states, Die Linke is a member of three coalition governments, which makes it difficult to present as an anti-establishment force. The party had positive results in the western urban areas, and particularly among young, urban, educated workers.

For example, in Berlin’s Neukölln – dominated by a radical left with Trotskyist origins – the party scored some of its highest votes after campaigning for rent controls, against building speculators, in support of refugees and against racism. In Hamburg, the party challenged the AfD’s message of hate.

“The places where Die Linke made the greatest gains were in places where the party was an integral part of active movements”, said Einde O’Callaghan, also a Die Linke member. For example, in Münster, where the party was central to mobilising against the AfD earlier in the year, and in Leipzig, “Mobilisations against the anti-refugee movement Legida, the local offshoot of the racist Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida), were large and successful, and Die Linke played a highly visible central role in the mobilisation”, O’Callaghan said.

Islamophobia is also an important battleground. As in many other countries across the globe, it has become the lingua franca of mainstream politics. O’Callaghan noted its place in Germany:

“There are two aspects to Islamophobia here. One is a longer standing hostility towards the Turkish and Kurdish communities, which together number about 3 million and are the largest group of immigrant origin. These communities have their origin in the West German ‘guest worker’ programme of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, when there was a labour shortage during the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ (economic miracle).

“About half of them now have German citizenship or are dual citizens. As a poorer section of the working class, they tended to concentrate in areas with low rents, and gradually they came to visually dominate certain areas in all major cities.

“For certain German nationalists, anti-Turkish racism didn’t really have that much of a religious element, more a cultural one – although since 9/11 the anti-Islamic element has grown and open racism has become almost socially acceptable.

“The second element is the large influx of refugees in 2015, when Merkel temporarily opened the borders.”

With the entrance of the AfD into the Bundestag, it is more important than ever to combine a clear anti-racist line with the broader fight for workers’ right. Though the level of class struggle remains low, the situation is open.