By Tristana Moore
BBC News, Berlin
News that the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) is nudging ahead of the mainstream Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the east German state of Saxony has shocked many Germans.
There is little consensus on how to tackle far-right activity
According to a recent opinion poll by the Forsa Institute, support for the neo-Nazi NPD is at 9%.
The poll suggests that the SPD would pick up only 8% of the vote if there were regional elections, while the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) would still maintain a clear lead at 39%.
The main losers are the Social Democrats, whose support has shifted to the new Left Party, at 27%.
For the last few years, voters in Saxony have turned to the neo-Nazi party because they are disillusioned with mainstream politics and they are increasingly fed up with the region's high unemployment rate.
In 2004, in a surprise result, the NPD entered the regional parliament in Saxony, after winning more than 9% of the vote. That was more than the 5% share that parties need before they can sit in parliament.
"The survey shows that the NPD is a party that has strong support in Saxony. The NPD is accepted as a normal party in some parts of the state," said Manfred Guellner, director of the Forsa Institute.
"Many young, unemployed men support the NPD. They're attracted to the far-right ideology and the sense of belonging, and hope for the future, which the NPD seems to offer them."
Social Democrats in Saxony were stunned when they heard about the poll's findings.
Saxony SPD leader Thomas Jurk said the poll was "harrowing". It was now up to the SPD to reverse the party's failing fortunes as quickly as possible, he said.
The general secretary of the Central Council of Jews, Stephan Kramer, has called for an open debate to help prevent the rise of far-right parties.
There have been attempts to ban the NPD, which is led by Udo Voigt
"There should be general concepts that are drawn up to tackle the problem as a whole," he said.
"It isn't a question of raising more money for anti-far-right initiatives, nor for launching more projects. What's needed is a co-ordinated approach, free from envy and without any political in-fighting."
Alarm about the rise of the far right in Saxony was fuelled by last month's attack on a group of Indian men in the town of Muegeln, near Leipzig.
During a town festival, eight Indian men were chased through the streets of Muegeln by around 50 youths, who are reported to have hurled racist abuse at them, including chanting slogans such as "Foreigners Out!"
The men were beaten up and police are investigating.
The incident dominated the headlines and provoked outrage among many Germans.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the attack as "extremely deplorable and shameful".
Call for ban
Politicians on all sides called for new measures to tackle xenophobia and far-right extremism, particularly in the former communist east of the country.
With many far-right gangs, known as Kameradschaften, operating freely in towns and villages, some politicians have once again demanded that the NPD should be banned.
SPD leader Kurt Beck said he was going to put together a new legal initiative designed to outlaw the NPD.
But other politicians are sceptical about such a move. Although many Germans feel revulsion when they see NPD supporters during demonstrations in city centres, when it comes to a political initiative to ban the party, any attempt degenerates into bickering.
It is a controversial idea because the last effort to ban the NPD, back in 2003, failed.
Germany's constitutional court in Karlsruhe rejected the ban after it established that most of the evidence against the far-right party was inadmissible because it had been collected by government intelligence agents who had infiltrated the organisation.
So the government in Saxony and the federal government remain in a dilemma - on the one hand, there is a sense that "something has to be done", but on the other hand, there is little consensus on what measures should be taken to tackle far-right activities.