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Should Germany ban AfD? What impact could this have?

People hold up their cell phones as they protest against the AfD party and right-wing extremism in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024.
People hold up their cell phones as they protest against the AfD party and right-wing extremism in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. Copyright Ebrahim Noroozi/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Ebrahim Noroozi/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Giulia Carbonaro
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Protests against the far-right party swept through Germany over the weekend. But should the AfD be banned?

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More than 800,000 people took to the streets of Germany's major cities this weekend to denounce Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The demos followed news last week that some members of the far-right party had attended a secret meeting last November where they allegedly discussed plans for mass deportations of immigrants and Germans with a migrant background.

With slogans such as "ban the AfD now", "all against fascism", "united against hate" or "never again", referring to the genocide of European Jews during the Second World War, Germans have been protesting since the investigative media Correctiv published the story.

"I want to say it loud and clear: right-wing extremists are attacking our democracy," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Friday in a video message to the more than 20 million German citizens with a migrant background.

People gather as they protest against the AfD party and right-wing extremism in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin.
People gather as they protest against the AfD party and right-wing extremism in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin.Ebrahim Noroozi/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

Growing concern about AfD

For its part, the AfD has dismissed the report as a "fairy tale" and said the media had "inflated" the meeting. 

But the scandal has revived a row on whether the far-right party should be banned. 

Last month, AfD won its first mayoralty in a town in Saxony. At the national level, the AfD is on 22%, just behind the Christian Democratic Union and its partner, the Christian Social Union of Bavaria, on 31%.

There is concern in the country about the rise of the far right, which has 78 seats in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament.

The party has been declared 'demonstrably extremist' by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Saxony and 42% of Germans are in favour of banning it, according to an Ipsos poll.

Participants walk with a banner that reads: "Stop the AfD!", in Erfurt, Germany
Participants walk with a banner that reads: "Stop the AfD!", in Erfurt, GermanyJacob Schroeter/(c) Copyright 2024, dpa (www.dpa.de). Alle Rechte vorbehalten

But could AfD be banned?

In June, a study by the German Institute for Human Rights on the possibility of banning AfD put the issue in the spotlight.

The study said the AfD 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. 

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.

In 2023, 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.

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Far-right politician Bjoern Hoecke, Thuringia's AfD parliamentary group leader, was charged with using a Nazi slogan in 2021.
Far-right politician Bjoern Hoecke, Thuringia's AfD parliamentary group leader, was charged with using a Nazi slogan in 2021.Michael Reichel/AP

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 in recent months. 

A major backfire

Proposals to ban AfD have “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. 

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“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. 

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.

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“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.”

People gather as they protest against the AfD party and right-wing extremism in Frankfurt/Main, Germany
People gather as they protest against the AfD party and right-wing extremism in Frankfurt/Main, GermanyMichael Probst/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

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.”

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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.

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“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.

People take part in an AfD demonstration about energy security and inflation, in front of the Reichstag building, in Berlin, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.
People take part in an AfD demonstration about energy security and inflation, in front of the Reichstag building, in Berlin, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.Christoph Soeder/AP

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.” 

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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.

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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.”

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