NEW YORK – The recent revelation that politicians from Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) met with right-wing activists last November to discuss an extremist “re-migration” plot has brought the debate over banning the party to a fever pitch.
The clandestine meeting, held at a lakeside hotel near Potsdam, reportedly centered on the possibility of mass deportations of non-ethnic Germans if the far-right were to come to power. Alarmed by this horrifying vision, leaders from across the political spectrum, public intellectuals, and influential media commentators now argue that shutting down the AfD is necessary to safeguard German democracy.
The AfD’s surging popular support has only heightened the sense of urgency, especially with regional elections scheduled in three of Germany’s eastern states – the party’s strongholds – later this year. More recently, the AfD has offered full-throated support for farmer protests against proposed subsidy cuts, raising concerns that the party could exploit the explosive situation for political gain.
Now, nearly half of the German public favors banning the AfD. And hundreds of thousands of Germans have participated in protests against the party in recent days. Moreover, an online petition calling for the government to strip Björn Höcke, the notorious AfD leader in the state of Thuringia, of his civil and political rights – a truly unprecedented proposal in Germany’s post-war history – has collected more than one and a half million signatures.
But attempting to outlaw the country’s second-most popular party would be democratically questionable and have unexpected – and potentially far-reaching – negative consequences.
To be sure, the procedure to ban political groups that seek to undermine or abolish the democratic system is straightforward enough. The Constitutional Court decides whether to shut down a party after receiving a formal request from the federal government, the federal parliament, or Germany’s second chamber, the Bundesrat, which represents the federal states.
But the Court has set a high threshold for political exclusion, as demonstrated by earlier attempts to dissolve parties. In 2017, it rejected an application to outlaw the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), despite the group’s overtly racist and anti-democratic agenda. In fact, the Court last employed this mechanism in 1956, at the height of the Cold War, when it banned the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
This precedent suggests that bringing a court case against the AfD would be anything but a formality and, more importantly, could easily turn into a political fiasco. Given the AfD’s popularity, even asking the Court to ban the party would be widely perceived as a tactical ploy by established parties to eliminate an increasingly strong competitor, reinforcing the far right’s argument that the system is rigged. If this attempt ultimately failed, the AfD’s cause would be strengthened, not weakened.
Moreover, Constitutional Court proceedings would inevitably be slow-moving – the case against the NPD took more than three years – and conclude long after the coming wave of elections has passed. But while any suggested benefits of an attempted AfD ban lie in the future, its negative repercussions would be felt immediately. In many ways, even debating legal action against the AfD only gives more ammunition to a party that thrives on a sense of victimhood.
Even in the unlikely event that the AfD is banned, only the party would disappear; its supporters – and their grievances – would not. Nothing would prevent AfD members from establishing a new right-wing party – an alternative to the Alternative.
It is high time to understand that fighting populism with legal activism will not work, and may even make the problem worse. The challenge from the far right must be confronted politically, with solutions that address the root causes of discontent: high energy prices, stagnant economic growth, persistently high levels of inward migration, and failed integration of the newcomers.
Certainly, liberal democracies must be vigilant – and they have both an obligation and a right to fight back, whether in the courts or on the floor of the Bundestag. But attempting to ban a political competitor is a short-cut around the unsettling fact that disgruntled voters have a legitimate right to express their grievances. Democratic values cannot be protected by curbing democratic freedoms.
The far-right challenge must be met in the voting booth, not at the judge’s bench. A victory over the AfD by way of a legal ban would be a moral and political defeat.
Michael Bröning, the author, most recently, of Vom Ende der Freiheit (Dietz, 2021), serves on the Basic Values commission of Germany’s Social Democratic Party.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.