In all the confusion over Germany's election result, one winner is clear. The newly founded Linkspartei - Left party - has taken 54 seats, leapfrogging Joschka Fischer's Greens, who have been part of the governing coalition for the past seven years. It is an extraordinary achievement and means that for the first time since the second world war the Social Democrats are faced with a rival party to their left.
The SPD's losses almost exactly equal the surge in support for the Left party. It is often dubbed "far left" or "extreme left", but this description is no more justified than it is to call Germany's Free Democrats - who were the other big winners on Sunday - "extreme right".
What Germany's voters did this weekend was to start a realignment of the political spectrum, with many potential benefits. The election puts Germany in line with most other European democracies where the left is represented by more than one dominant party, thereby allowing for healthy debate and competition. Britain, where parties to the left of Labour have never succeeded in making progress, is increasingly the exception.
The main theme of the campaign was the neoliberal economic reform programme that the chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, set in motion five years ago. Almost Blairite in his aloofness from his party's democratic tradition, he embarked on it with minimal consultation with the rank and file or the trade unions. Anger over this, plus the failure of the Schröder measures to reduce Germany's high unemployment, led activists in scores of union branches to form slates of candidates, the Alternative for Labour and Social Justice, to challenge the Social Democrats in regional elections. This summer they took the bold decision to fight the Social Democrats nationally by merging with the Party for Democratic Socialism, whose roots are mainly in eastern Germany.
While former communist parties in most of eastern Europe have bought into the neoliberal agenda, the PDS, which grew out of East Germany's former ruling party, consistently refused. But it never broke its media image as a largely eastern party. Meanwhile, the Green party, which could have been its western partner, was becoming increasingly pro-market.
The PDS's links with western trade unionists have changed the equation. The test for the new party will be to hold the alliance together so that the so-called "wall in people's heads" - Germany's old east-versus-west division, which survived the collapse of the Berlin wall - finally disappears and a national leftwing party, critical of globalisation, puts down roots.
It will not be easy, since the party has two fiercely individualistic leaders. In cold rain at their final rally in Berlin on Friday night, Oskar Lafontaine (who briefly served as Schröder's finance minister in 1998) and Gregor Gysi once again could not stomach being on the platform together. Gysi arrived after Lafontaine finished.
Their separate messages did chime, however. The pundits predict a possible "grand coalition" after the poll, they said, but Germany already has one, although not in name. The SPD-led government's recent measures to cut unemployment benefits and pensions and charge more for healthcare had broad support from the CDU in parliament.
This argument and the left's rising strength played a large part in setting the agenda of the campaign. Thanks to blunders by his conservative challenger, Angela Merkel, who initially touted a radical flat-tax proponent as her would-be finance minister, Schröder skilfully turned the tables. He fought as though he were in opposition and she were chancellor. He exaggerated his differences with the CDU, promising to defend social justice and block her plans to make it easier for employers to fire workers. In spite of Germany's allegedly powerful unions and its strong "social" state, the country has no statutory minimum wage. In this campaign Schröder took the Linkspartei's line and promised to introduce one.
On the right there was also a redistribution of votes, though of less significance than the one on the left. The Free Democrats' rise matches the CDU's loss. Their programmes barely differ, and it may well be that Angela Merkel lost votes because of her gender. Several of her party's male grandees did little to hide their disdain for her competence, while she made no virtue out of being Germany's first woman candidate for chancellor. Many CDU voters may have switched to the FDP to keep her out.
But Sunday's central message was a protest against neoliberalism. It had much in common with this summer's votes in France and the Netherlands against the EU constitution. Germany's paradox is that a country which is the world's second-largest exporter and can compete globally has an internal market where employers decline to invest, small business stagnates and joblessness is high. Then people are asked to sacrifice the welfare state they built up after 1945. Confused, bitter and bereft of leaders with a convincing programme, many are joining a growing trend in saying that there must be another course.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited