NEW DELHI: Germany’s anti-Islam movement, Pegida (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes/ Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident), performed far better than anticipated in mayoral elections, taking 10 percent of the vote in its eastern stronghold of Dresden.

The movement, that at one point seemed to be rapidly expanding, has seen a dwindling turnout for its weekly marches. Pegida has also been struck by recent internal strife, with its leader Lutz Bachmann having to quit after anti-immigrant comments and a photo showing him posing as Adolf Hitler emerged on social media.

(Pegida leader Lutz Bachmann’s image on social media).

This is why Pegida candidate Tatjana Festerling’s result -- 9.6 percent of the vote and in fourth place -- is surprising, especially as the only opinion poll published ahead of the election, by the Technical University of Dresden, had predicted Festerling would secure between just 1-2 percent of votes.

The election in Dresden was the result of the conservative mayor resigning for health reasons, and is set to go into a second round as Eva-Maria Stange, the joint candidate for the Social Democrats, Greens and far-left Linke, took 36 percent of the vote; a candidate from the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) got 31.7 percent; and just above Festerling, conservative candidate from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party came third with 15.4 percent of the vote -- a bad sign for the party in power in the centre as it loses yet another major city.

Pegida’s performance is indication that the movement still has a large presence. Pegida rallies saw their largest numbers soon after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, with 25,000 supporters coming out in the streets in Dresden under the Pegida banner in what was described as a tribute to the victims of the terror attacks in Paris.

Counter movements continues unabated, with the biggest yet in the city of Munich, drawing 12,000 people under the banner “Make space – Refugees are welcome.”

The rise of Pegida focussed debate on anti-Islamism, neo-Nazism and the problem of immigration, as many theorised that the movement could crystallize across Europe.

"The Islamists, who Pegida have been warning about..., showed France that they are not capable of democracy but rather look to violence and death as an answer," Pegida's leaders said on the group’s social networking site. "Our politicians want us to believe the opposite. Must such a tragedy happen here in Germany first?"

In addition to Pegida, another such party is the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), Germany’s largest neo-Nazi organization that has five lawmakers in the parliament of the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Following the Paris attacks, an attack on a Hamburg newspaper office that republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad which had originally been printed by Charlie Hebdo in 2006, further contributed to rising tensions.

As tensions increase, so does the violence. Clashes first broke out between far-right protesters and fundamentalist Muslims known as Salafists in Cologne in October. Other incidents of clashes between anti-Islam protesters and police have been reported since.

The situation even prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to criticize the anti-Muslim rhetoric. "Of course there's freedom to demonstrate in Germany… But it's no place for agitation and mud-slinging against people who come to us from other countries,” the German chancellor said.

Other political figures have condemned the anti-Islamic protests as well. Justice Minister Heiko Maas told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the country was living through “a new level of escalation in agitation against migrants and refugees” adding that Pegida was “a shame for Germany.”

Similarly, in the UK, the rise of Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party -- which in the May EU elections bested both the Conservative and the Labour Party, winning 28 percent of the vote (a major jump 16.5 percent in 2009) -- is reflective of the trend centred on anti-immigration and Islamophobia.

The situation is the same elsewhere -- the right is growing. In the Netherlands, the Paris attacks seem to have bolstered for populist leader Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party, with support for the anti-Islamic party jumping to its highest level in more than a year. If elections were held now, the Freedom Party would be the single largest in the Netherlands, with 31 seats in the 150-member parliament, more than twice as many as it won in the last elections, according to a Sunday poll.

In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party entered Parliament in 2012 and seems to be gaining strength. In Sweden, the anti-immigration Sweden Democratic Party jumped to 13 percent of the vote in 2014.

Further, these parties seem to be finding a united ground as they have begun to cooperate in the European Parliament.

The dismal state of the European economy, of course, doesn’t help. Caught in recession it has parallels with the 1930s -- when economic misery helped radicalise middle and working classes. The conditions are the right setting for a breeding ground culminating in leaders who allege that the real culprit are Islamic immigrants -- who are lapping up all the available jobs (a picture bearing little resemblance to the socio-economic reality).

If Europe is to counter this wave of Islamophobia that is clearly on the rise, lawmakers will have to find a way to connect with the ordinary citizens -- many of whom have turned to right-wing parties and protests not because of ideology but because of a feeling of lack of political accountability and economic dissatisfaction.