Battling the right: How far can democracy go to protect itself?
Last week, three out of the 16 German states had regional elections. When the election results were published, the media and the established parties were in shock. The new right-wing party AfD (Alternative for Germany) won seats in the federal state governments of all three states.
The party is well-known for its euroskeptic and right-wing populist ideology. Its vice-president, Beatrix von Storch*, was recently asked whether police should use armed force to keep out women and children entering the country illegally. Her reply on Facebook was simple and clear: “Yes.”
Although the gain in influence of the AfD is causing massive concerns among the general public, another right-wing party is in the spotlight at the moment.
This month, after more than five years of preparation, the constitutional court of Germany started to hear arguments to ban the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD).
The NPD was founded in the 1960s and has about 6,000 members. Although the party has never managed to win enough votes to reach the national level, it is represented in one of the state parliaments. It is declaredly ultranationalist and said to have strong connections to neo-Nazi anti-semitic organizations.
Several party members have been convicted of violent behavior and incitement of racial hatred. A first attempt to ban the party has been launched in 2003 before but fell through. The party was so heavily planted with informers by intelligence services that it was impossible to discern what testimonials could be taken into consideration.
In 2013, the German parliament asked again for the ban. Germany defines itself as a militant democracy (“Wehrhafte Demokratie” in German). The constitution of the German republic, drafted shortly after WWII, states that anti-democratic politics that threaten the “free basic democratic order” are prohibited and thus can be fought by the state. Should the court decide to ban the NPD, this would be the third party ban.
But this court decision is more than a question of juridical technicality. There are two underlying questions: Should any constitutional court or any democracy be allowed to ban parties? And if so, will this actually help the cause?
The reason most often stated when discussing a ban of the NPD is the financing of a political party. Each legitimate party within the German system is entitled to public funding. In 2014, the party received roughly 1.9 million dollar in state financing. This money is mostly invested in campaigns, the party has repeatedly caused outrage with its slogan which translates to “Money For Granny, Not For Sinti And Roma.”
Banning the party will not change the mindset of its members for the better, but it would be a clear sign for a young democracy that is willing to fight its threats, especially from the far-right and even in today’s situation. With resentments and open hatred against refugees rising, it is more important than ever to openly declare that there is no place for racism in Germany. Any modern country’s first concern should be the protection of society’s weakest members, its impressionable youth and those who fled from war and terror.
Now that the case has been opened, some argue, it is indispensable that the ban will go through. Otherwise, this is not only massive publicity for the party but could also be twisted to a seal of quality and legitimacy that will pull the party from its dubious position.
But there’s a downside to the ban and this case as well.
Not only could a ban of the party lead to the radicalization of the previous party members. Discussing the idea of banning a party is just as much of a discussion as what democracy actually means.
Democracy should entail dealing with threats through debate, discussion and transparency. Tinkering with the idea of the ban comes at a bad time. It’s adding fuel to the fire for any right-leaning citizen, for those who are, as it is, frustrated with the current government and the pro-migration public media.
Spotlight on the NPD is taking away attention from the real problem, as the latest elections proved. The NPD is not the real problem because it is so right. What is much more dangerous is the alluring populist conservative right of the AfD. Banning any party will not automatically eliminate its reach but will only push the real issue further from public attention. That does not make it less but actually more dangerous.
Tolerance is a sign of power, although both terrorists and the far-right are trying to teach otherwise. Banning a party, even an authoritarian one, is in fact supporting the idea of an authoritarian state. And even with the NPD gone, the AfD will remain and continue to appeal to the right-end of the conservative middle class. The constitutional court will need three to six months before its final decision. No matter what decision they will reach, this is not the end of right movements: “The NPD may be in the past soon. But the ghosts of the German past are more present than ever before.”
*Her grandfather was Hitler’s Minister of Finance and after Hitler’s suicide, even Leading Minister of the German Reich until the surrender to the Allies.