On the eve of the NSW election The Oz surmised that punters were secretly salivating for “anyone but Labor” — all the opposition had to do was turn up sporting a palatable shirt-tie combination. Of course, Peter Debnam’s hollowed-out rabble couldn’t capitalise and the mooted ABLoL (anyone but Liberal or Labor)backlash failed to cut through. So Morris Iemma, with practically zero public momentum, saddles up for a second term of crisis management by default.

But in Germany, liberal democracy abhors a vacuum — balkanized groups at either end of the spectrum gradually have been gaining ground. The SPD’s stake in Angela Merkel’s ‘grand coalition’ is now wobbling ever closer to a Jenga-style implosion.

In the red corner, the semantically unambiguous ‘Left’ (Die Linke) was finally inaugurated last week amidst minimal fanfare. The Left is itself a coalition between former Eastern Bloc communists (PDS) and the Labour and Social Justice Party (WASG) led by former SPD hardman Oscar Lafontaine. A precursor faction captured 8.3% of the vote at the 2005 federal poll and grabbed headlines opposing plans to raise the retirement age to 67.

In the brown corner, neo-Nazis led by the National Democratic Party are increasingly active in the tumbleweed-strewn east where unemployment is four times higher than in the rest of the country. The NPD, mirroring some of Hezbollah’s tactics, are busy doling out “social services” to mulleted youth and easily met the 5% electoral threshold in September’s regional polls.

And echoing their anglophone brethren at the BNP, they’ve eerily declared their ultimate aim to sidestep politics and exploit an apparently imminent economic crisis.

If Die Linke can dazzle enough dissatisfied unionists and Ostalgie-ridden oldies, the SPD, whose membership has plummeted, could be swept away in a tide of Third Way irrelevancy and the CDU will be forced to look again to the libertarian FDP for succor and support. SPD rebels led by Ottmar Schreiner openly criticise the party and could be tempted to defect before the next federal poll in 2009.

But it’s a big ‘if’ — the Left is dominated by the same orthodox activists for whom the Russian Revolution represents the apogee of modern cultural development. Behind the bluster lies a wasteland of ideas.

Disengagement with formal party politics is hardly a new phenomenon. Political culture is undergoing radical shifts and rusted-on machine men seem incapable of sniffing the wind. In Germany, the SPD could again court the Greens and even reprise plans for an aesthetically pleasing but probably unworkable traffic light coalition.

But this is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic — voters are already looking for real alternatives, and they might not be ones favoured by the political elite.