Last year a German court ruled the far-right party was a threat to democracy, allowing it to be monitored by the country’s security services.
A recent study by Germany’s Institute for Human Rights exploring the possibility of banning the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has put the far-right political party under the spotlight.
Published on 7 June, the study says the AfD now poses such a danger to the country’s democratic order “it could be banned by the Federal Constitutional Court.”
AfD can be legally banned because its explicit goals are “to eliminate the free democratic basic order” and “abolish the guarantee of human dignity” enshrined in Germany’s constitution, claims the institute.
Set up in 2013, the AfD has been accused of harbouring anti-democratic tendencies, though it officially supports democracy in Germany.
Euronews has approached the party for comment.
Banning the AfD has been floated in Germany before. A court last year ruled the party should be considered a potential threat to democracy, paving the way for it to be put under surveillance by national security services.
Earlier this year, Germany decided to label AfD’s youth wing, the Young Alternative for Germany, as an extremist group. The formal accusation of extremism is as far as the country can go without issuing an outright ban.
Domestic intelligence services have also labelled the Thuringia state chapter of the party a right-wing extremist group. Earlier this week, its leader Björn Höcke was accused of purposefully using a Nazi slogan at a May 2021 campaign event.
But while the Germany Institute for Human Rights’ study reignited a debate around banning the party in Germany, AfD took advantage of the situation, turning their condemnation into a call to arms for supporters.
The far-right party – which opposes Islam, immigration and the EU – is worrying Germany’s political class, with support climbing from 10% last June to 18% now, according to Politico’s Poll of Polls.
A major backfire
The proposal to ban AfD has “backfired massively because the AfD took it upon themselves to paint a different picture in the media,” according to Una Ivona Titz, a journalist and researcher at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a group focused on extremism and the far-right.
“Right now, they’re garnering a lot of support on Telegram because they’re rallying their supporters and they’re painting themselves as a persecuted party within an unjust system which they’re fighting from within,” she told Euronews.
While the study aimed to increase awareness over the threats posed by AfD, “what we’re seeing is that it has emboldened them and actually helped them bolster the image of AfD,” Titz explained.
“Germany has upcoming elections in Saxony, and right now the AfD is somewhere around 30%,” she added. “We’re fearing that it will further embolden or that it might lead to people who are sceptical or withholding their votes to actually go vote for the AfD because they perceive them as the sort of underdog who is treated unjustly.”
In the latest district elections in Sonneberg, southern Thuringia, last weekend, AfD’s Robert Stuhlmann received 46.7% of the votes, ahead of any other candidate but not quite enough to avoid a runoff, which has been scheduled for June 25.
Previous attempts at banning an elected party in Germany have failed and backfired against its organisers — with a tentative ban on far-right party NPD in 2017 being rejected by the second Senate of the Federal Constitutional Court.
Politicians also appear to be cautious about suggesting to ban AfD.
“The study has gained traction as an online debate and has then subsequently been picked up by politicians from the entire political spectrum,” Titz said. “So you had politicians from the CDU, from SBT, and from the left boycotting the proposal of a ban or being sceptical towards the ban because they saw it as a misplaced attempt.”
“For example, Sebastian Hoffmann [from SPD] talked about the AfD as an anti-constitutional party, but, on the other hand, he sees the primary goal of politics as putting the AfD in a sort of political limbo where it becomes no longer electable and thus avoiding a ban.”
An impossible dilemma
The idea of banning a party is not only politically fraught, but also poses a moral dilemma for many. As Princeton professor Jan-Werner Mueller put it in a 2013 article, democracies are “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” ban extremist parties.
While forbidding a popular party can undermine the pillars of democracy, he says leaving a country exposed to the threat of extremism can be dangerous and “ultimately leave no democracy to defend.”
That’s why countries have generally avoided banning extremist parties, and have explored different approaches.
“There’s a spectrum of how deep the state can go to act against extremist groups,” Lorenzo Vidino, Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, told Euronews. “And that is based on different histories, different constitutional, different social and cultural approaches.”
“There’s no right or wrong way.”
On one end of the spectrum, Vidino pointed to the US approach, which is based “on an extreme tolerance of the intolerant”, meaning domestic groups that are considered extremist can be tolerated.
“The Ku Klux Klan is legal in America,” he said. “They can hold rallies, burn crosses – they occasionally do that. That’s for a variety of reasons based on the Constitution and freedom of speech.”
These groups are still monitored by the state, “but it’s basically impossible to ban a domestic extremist group in America,” Vidino said.
At the other end of the spectrum, he points to countries like Germany. “There’s very low tolerance of extremist groups, even if not directly violent.”
“That of course stems from German recent history.”
Even in countries where extremist parties can be banned, the decision “is never one that’s taken lightly, for a variety of reasons,” Vidino said.
“First of all, there’s a complicated legal process. But there’s also a political side to it, that leads to the question of whether we would also then ban extremist groups on the left, like environmental ones.”
There’s also a practical issue, Vidino said. “If you ban a group, it doesn’t just disappear. AfD has millions of supporters – the problem it poses isn’t solved after you ban the party. In fact, you might lose the control you have over it by dissolving the party.”
What to do then?
Vidino said the best tool to counter extremist parties is monitoring.
But there are others.
According to Titz, one solution that has proven effective in weakening the appeal of extremist far-right parties like AfD is to strengthen media literacy towards democracy, especially in areas like the former DDR, in eastern Germany.
“You have a high level of scepticism towards democracy as a whole, and what really helps, statistically, is to invest in programmes right there, and keep them [AfD] on their toes with regard to their rhetoric,” she said.
“Everything that the AfD puts out has to be documented and monitored and counterbalanced.”