BERLIN – Last Friday appeared to be a good day for German democracy. The Bundesrat, or upper house of Parliament, voted to ban the extreme-right National Democratic Party for trying to undermine the country’s constitutional order with its “anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic stance.” The party, known by its German initials NPD, regrets the Nazis’ defeat in World War II, wants to take Germany out of NATO and agitates to send immigrants “home.”
Yet the Bundesrat, controlled by the opposition, is fighting the wrong fight. The chances are slim that the Constitutional Court will back the ban and rule that the NPD threatens Germany’s democracy. Only two parties – West Germany’s Communist Party and the immediate successor to the Nazi Party – have ever been banned, both more than 50 years ago.
And if the NPD survives, it could emerge stronger than before.
Founded in 1964, the NPD was a fringe party in West Germany. After German reunification in 1990, it experienced a brief revival in the former East Germany among the young, disgruntled and unemployed. Today, it has about 6,000 members and holds seats in just two state assemblies. The NPD represents about 1 percent of the electorate nationwide and has no hope of getting into Parliament.
Mainstream politicians already tried to ban the party for undermining the German Constitution a decade ago. The case fell apart before the Constitutional Court after it became clear that government informants had infiltrated the NPD’s leadership, making it impossible to distinguish the party’s true intentions from the state’s efforts to forbid it. Renewed pressure for a ban followed the discovery last year of a murderous neo-Nazi terrorist cell with connections to NPD members.
As Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger pointed out in a recent newspaper interview, it’s not enough to prove that the NPD criticizes Germany’s constitutional order. In order to be banned, the party would have to be actively and aggressively fighting it.
It’s ridiculous to argue that a party as tiny and unpopular as the NPD could somehow threaten Germany’s robust democracy. The fact that nobody can predict how the Constitutional Court will rule is the best indication of the independence and integrity of democratic institutions here.
Even if the court rules in favor of the Bundesrat, the NPD could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to argue that a ban violates Germans’ freedom to assembly – only raising its profile in the process.
In the unlikely event of a ban, there would be little practical benefit. NPD members could join other far-right groups, such as the new anti-immigrant party called Die Rechte, or “The Right.” Others might go underground.
With a national election approaching next fall, the effort to stub out the NPD reeks of politics. Chancellor Angela Merkel may have little choice but to throw her government’s support behind the cause. After all, two-thirds of Germans are for a ban.
Far-right parties are a scourge of many European democracies. But trying to prohibit them does nothing to uproot chauvinism or stop racist violence. It only creates the illusion that politicians are taking action.