Before the recent elections in the German states of Thuringia, Saarland and Saxony it seemed likely that Christian Democrat (CDU) German Chancellor Angela Merkel would return to power comfortably this year, probably in coalition with the free-market fundamentalists of the Free Democratic Party (FDP).
On August 30, however, German voters went to the polls in the three states and for local elections in North Rhine Westphalia. The result — an unmistakable swing to the left — has blown prospects for the September 27 German federal elections wide open. Both big parties — the centre-right CDU and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) — received heavy blows.
In national opinion polls, the SPD (a junior partner in a federal "grand coalition" government with the CDU) has slumped to a historic low of 22%. On August 30, its vote continued to decline. The SPD polled only 10.4% in Saxony, and 18.5% in Thuringia.
However, the biggest loser was the ruling CDU. Its vote dropped by more than 13 points in both Thuringia and Saarland — the worst results since 1949. It will probably lose government in both states.
While the big parties suffered, gains were made by Die Linke ("The Left"), formed in 2007 in a merger of disillusioned SPD members, unionists, socialists and members of the Party for Democratic Socialism — the reformed successor to the former ruling party of East Germany.
In the former East German state of Thuringia, Die Linke reached second place with 27.6%, nine percent ahead of the SPD and just behind the CDU's 31.3%. In Saxony, Die Linke achieved 20.6% — twice the SPD vote.
In Saxony, however, the CDU vote held up at 40% and the neo-nazi NPD gained more than 5% and returned seven parliamentarians — equal with the Greens.
Die Linke's best result was in the western state of Saarland, home to the party's national co-leader Oskar Lafontaine, where they surged more than 19 points to 21.3%, just behind the SPD on 24.5%. Lafontaine called the election outcome "an unprecedented victory in the history of German political parties".
The CDU is still the largest party in all three states. But only Saxony seems certain to remain in its hands. There, it should be able to replace the SPD with the FDP as coalition partners.
Die Linke's involvement in coalition governments in the other two states now seems likely, unless the SPD prefers to share power with the right-wing CDU, as it does in the federal government and several state governments.
There is fierce opposition from within the SPD to working with Die Linke — who it views as traitors and "communists". The hatred is almost visceral for Oskar Lafontaine, former chairman of the SPD and former federal Finance Minister, whose resignation from the SPD in 2005 led to the formation of Die Linke.
In 2008, negotiations for a coalition government in another state, Hesse, failed because four SPD MPs refused to work with Die Linke. This forced new elections.
The SPD has since accepted the idea of state coalitions with Die Linke, but it refuses to do so as junior partner, and refuses to work with Die Linke at the federal level.
The CDU remains ahead in national opinion polls at 36%, although Merkel's government has recently suffered embarrassing setbacks.
Economics Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg — a member of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union — has come under fire for using a legal firm that advises the financial sector to draft new financial regulation laws.
Merkel herself has been criticised for holding a birthday celebration with the head of DeutscheBank.
The SPD has responded to the rise of Die Linke by shifting to the left, calling for the creation of 4 million new jobs over the next decade. Unemployment in Germany is almost 8%, and rising, as is poverty.
Die Linke has responded to the economic crisis by calling for a ban on mass lay-offs, free education, the nationalisation of private banks, the introduction of a minimum wage and a "millionaires tax", and a cut in greenhouse gases of 90% by 2050.
It is also the only party calling for an end to German involvement in the unpopular war in Afghanistan.
Die Linke's electoral successes are not without their dangers, however. The party is already in coalition government with the SPD in Berlin and Brandenburg, where it has been criticised for implementing neoliberal policies.
However, it is clear that Die Linke's socialist message is resonating with voters suffering from the economic downturn, and it is firmly placed to make a significant impact in the federal elections this month.