The Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been riding a wave of success for some time, and the latest polls put them in second place nationwide at 23% — up from 10.3% in the last general election in 2021. The AfD’s latest victory came in December in the mayoral election in Pirna, a town of 39,000 inhabitants in the eastern state of Saxony on the border with the Czech Republic, where 53-year-old Tim Lochner won December’s vote as an independent candidate supported by the AfD.
Before that, in June, the AfD won a district council election in Sonneberg in the eastern state of Thuringia — another first — while in October, the AfD won double-digit results in the state elections in the southern and central states of Bavaria and Hesse.
At the same time, German authorities have been targeting the AfD for its extremist tendencies. The party’s branches in Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia have all been classified as “proven to be right-wing extremist” by the domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz). In five more states the party is being monitored for being “suspected right-wing extremist.”
However, in the remaining eight of Germany’s 16 federal states, authorities so far seem to see no problem in the party representatives’ aggressive rhetoric and their links to extremist anti-immigration milieus.
How should the media deal with the AfD?
The German media have also been struggling to find the right way to deal with the AfD. Back in June 2023, the weekly magazine Stern faced a barrage of criticism for giving the AfD a platform with their cover story, an exclusive interview with AfD co-chair and parliamentary group leader Alice Weidel.
On public TV, talk shows have been inviting the AfD’s more moderate representatives as guests. They are then invariably asked to clarify statements made by the AfD’s Thuringian state leader Björn Höcke, a former history teacher from western Germany, who leads the party’s most extremist faction and is often referred to as the party’s secret leader.
Höcke has often been accused of dropping far-right dog whistles and phrases such as “great replacement,” a white supremacist conspiracy theory, Africanization, Orientalization and Islamization of Germany. But the AfD’s party leaders have usually sidestepped requests to clarify their own positions on Höcke’s more radical statements.
In November 2023, TV talk show host Sandra Maischberger chaired a debate between the AfD’s 82-year-old honorary chairman Alexander Gauland, a former member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and 91-year-old former German Interior Minister Gerhart Baum, of the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), both men who lived through the end of Nazi era and World War II.
In reference to Höcke’s remarks, Baum said they showed “an ethnic mindset that excludes people of other origins and religions.” But Gauland denied the accusations: “We don’t represent an ethnic ideal, we represent the cultural community,” he said. “Yes, we are against the mass immigration of people who come from a culture that is completely foreign to us.”
Would it be possible to ban the AfD?
The ongoing allegations of extremism have led to a debate about the possibility of banning the AfD. According to the Basic Law, Germany’s constitution, parties can be banned by the Federal Constitutional Court if their aims or the conduct of their supporters can be proven to aim to eliminate the free democratic basic order and endanger the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany.
In West Germany’s post-WWII history, only two parties have ever been banned: The National Socialist-oriented Socialist Reich Party (SRP) in 1952 and the Stalinist Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1956.
Now, CDU lawmaker Marco Wanderwitz has again triggered a debate by demanding the AfD be banned. And in November, Der Spiegel newsmagazine ran a 10-page cover story under the headline: “Ban the AfD?”
“German history, in particular, has shown that the free democratic basic order of a state can be destroyed if inhumane positions do not meet with vigorous opposition in time and are thus able to spread and prevail,” argued Beate Rudolf, the director of the German Institute for Human Rights, which is funded by the Bundestag.
But legal scholar Sophie Schönberger, of the University of Dusseldorf, does not believe a ban is feasible. “From what I see of publicly accessible material, I don’t know whether this is enough to ban the party nationwide,” she told public broadcaster ZDF. And if the application in Germany is successful, the AfD could turn to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Schönberger, a party law expert, said she was very skeptical that an AfD ban would be upheld there.
Populist parties gain strength across Europe
In current polls ahead of the 2024 state elections in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia, the AfD is ahead everywhere with ratings of well over 30%.
Nevertheless, it has little prospect of participating in government, because so far no other party wants to form a coalition with the AfD. This is in contrast to other countries in Europe, like Italy, Hungary, Finland and Sweden, where right-wing populist and far-right parties have come to power in a new trend.
For historian Heinrich August Winkler, there is no question that democracy is under pressure — not only in Germany. “The fact that national populist parties now draw their strength from all political camps is worrying,” Winkler told the daily Tagesspiegel newspaper, adding that democracy is under pressure from many sides.
But Winkler is also cautiously optimistic. “I continue to believe that the liberal forces of Western democracy will prove stronger than the opponents of the achievements of the Enlightenment,” he said.
This article was originally written in German.
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