German court asked to ban political party agitated by refugees
BERLIN — Amid a refugee crisis and a surge of violence targeting foreigners, Germany’s highest court is weighing a move it has taken only twice since the fall of the Nazis: banning a political party.
The Federal Constitutional Court has agreed to hear a contentious petition to outlaw the far-right National Democratic Party on grounds that it “foments hate.” Just over a decade ago, the court dismissed a similar attempt to ban the 52-year-old ultranationalist party.
But there are good reasons for the court’s about-face, some analysts say, as Germans remain deeply divided about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy to a flood of refugees from Syria and other world crisis spots.
“This is a very radical party. The NPD is pro-violence, although not explicitly, and they have a racist ideology that is a danger for Germany’s political culture,” said Hajo Funke, a political scientist and researcher in right-wing violence in Germany. “If they become very influential, they could destroy the federal republic.”
The Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament, formally asked the Karlsruhe-based court to ban the NPD at the start of a three-day trial March 1 on grounds that the party is racist, anti-Semitic and a threat to German democracy.
The NPD has stepped up its intimidation of political opponents and minorities as a flood of Syrian refugees have applied for asylum in Germany, Bundesrat President Stanislaw Tillich argued in his opening statement before the court.
“The past two years especially have shown that the NPD is capable of carrying out campaigns, gathering groups of people and inciting them to hateful acts,” said Mr. Tillich. “Violence against people and property, as well as arson attacks on refugee accommodation centers, are the consequences of their racist ideas.”
Right-wing violence is on the rise in Germany. Tagesspiegel, a Berlin-based daily newspaper, reported recently that police registered 921 acts of right-wing or neo-Nazi violence last year, nearly double that of 2014.
Germany has been rocked by the swift rise of a rival far-right group, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or Pegida. Party chief Lutz Bachmann this month went on trial in Dresden on charges of hate speech and inciting racial hatred, and authorities on April 19 arrested five anti-immigrant activists in an early-morning raid over suspected attacks on refugee shelters.
A third right-wing populist movement, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, fell just short of winning seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of the federal parliament, in the 2013 federal election and have representatives in eight of Germany’s state parliaments. The AfD is deeply skeptical of the European Union but has been more divided on how hard a line to take on Germany’s immigration policies.
NPD Deputy Chairman Frank Schwerdt said the party did not promote hate or violence. Although it supports citizenship laws based on ethnicity, the party reflects the views of ordinary Germans who oppose Ms. Merkel’s liberal refugee policies Mr. Schwerdt said.
He believed the move to ban the party was motivated by petty politics.
“It has to be possible to oppose these decisions and have a different opinion,” said Mr. Schwerdt. “We are in principle against the idea of banning a party. It arouses the suspicion that one is trying to get rid of disagreeable political competition.”
Links to terrorism
Florian Hartleb, a political consultant in Berlin, agreed that the move was political, but it’s not about the government eliminating an opponent, he said.
Mr. Hartleb and others said another reason behind the proposed ban was the 2011 discovery of the National Socialist Underground, a far-right-wing terrorist cell that committed a series of killings of Turks living inGermany in the early 2000s. Ms. Merkel’s government was heavily criticized for bungling its investigation of the group.
That scandal put pressure on Ms. Merkel, said Mr. Hartleb. “Germany wants to show that action is being taken against extremist violence,” he said. “It’s to show other EU member states and the U.S. that Germany has a zero-tolerance policy against extremist violence.”
The Bundesrat began preparing its case for the ban in 2012 shortly after the NSU scandal erupted.
To date, no connection has been found between the NPD and the NSU, and the NSU was not a subject of the hearings in Karlsruhe, said Mr. Schwerdt. Investigations into the NSU are continuing.
The Bundesrat faces an uphill battle, analysts say. It’s not easy to ban a political party in Germany. Only the Constitutional Court can ban political parties, and Germany’s constitution, known as the Basic Law, provides a high degree of protection for them, Mr. Hartleb said.
“It isn’t sufficient just to say that a party is extremist to outlaw it,” he said. “You have to prove that the party is really aggressive, that they have an official tendency toward violence. The NPD is clearly an extremist party, but that isn’t enough.”
Germany has banned two political parties in its postwar history: the neo-Nazi Socialist Reich Party and the Communist Party of Germany were declared unconstitutional in 1952 and 1956, respectively. Those parties represented obvious threats, given German history and the Cold War against the Soviet Union, said Ulrich Battis, a constitutional law professor at Humboldt University in Berlin.
The German government’s first attempt to ban the NPD failed. In 2003, the court found that state agents infiltrated the group too heavily for a fair trial to take place.
The revived case is not considered a legal slam dunk. Despite the rise in violence, the party’s defenders can make a case that it’s losing stature inGermany, Mr. Battis said.
Membership in the party has decreased steadily in recent years: The NPD had only about 5,200 members in 2014, down from 6,000 in 2012, according to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, a government security agency.
The NPD’s recent electoral performance also has been disastrous. The NPD is represented in only one state parliament in Germany, the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where it holds five seats.
The party has never been able to gain the 5 percent of votes required to enter the Bundestag, nor has it ever been represented in the Bundesrat.
“The NPD is in a crisis. Is this ban really needed?” Mr. Hartleb asked. “It’s not so clear what the real impact on extremism would be.”
Mr. Schwerdt noted that the judges’ questions during the trial suggested they were skeptical of a ban, too. “The judges said the NPD is not that significant and that the evidence presented does not speak so clearly in favor for a ban for the NPD,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Constitutional Court said a verdict is expected in early autumn.
NPD leaders have pledged to appeal any loss to the European Court of Human Rights, an ironic move given that the party has long opposed German membership in the European Union.
“We are prepared to carry on,” said Mr. Schwerdt. “The European Court has ruled several times on party bans, and as far as I know, they have repealed every single one.”
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