Since 19 June, polls have consistently placed support for the right-populist party Alternative für Deutschland at 20% or higher, making them the second most popular party in Germany – slightly ahead of government-leading SPD, and behind the CDU/CSU. Last week, Thomas Haldenwang, the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), gave a state media interview in which he accused the party yet again of harbouring “a significant number of people … who repeatedly spread hatred and agitation against minorities.” Despite serious questions about whether Haldenwang’s repeated slander is even legal, spokesmen for all the major parties immediately declared themselves in agreement with the assessment.
It’s very important to note that Haldenwang is himself a member of the CDU. The Christian Democrats ought to be the big winners in the opposition, as Olaf Scholz’s coalition government stumbles from one crisis to the next. Yet they’re doing no better than they were in mid-2021. Angela Merkel has done the party no favours, implicating the Christian Democrats in the catastrophic pandemic response, as well as the ongoing mass migration crisis and even the ascendancy of the Green climate programme. They’ve failed to offer any real alternative to the present government, and the AfD is reaping the gains instead.
A day after Haldenwang’s renewed warnings, the German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier published an editorial in Der Spiegel, in which he condemned the AfD as directly as the dictates of etiquette permit, at one point even calling for “militant” resistance against the party:
Our constitution can tolerate the hardest and toughest disputes. It cannot, however, integrate enemies of the constitution – and we must not ignore the danger they pose. Political antagonism is one thing, constitutional hostility something else entirely.
So what is to be done? In the fight against extremism, there is a historical lesson that runs like a red thread through the earliest draft constitution set down at Herrenchiemsee – and which still applies today: A democracy must be fortified against its enemies. Never again should democratic rights of freedom be abused in order to abolish freedom and democracy. To be robust and defensible daily political life means first of all to demonstrate an openness to political debate and not to accept the trumped-up lies propagated by the enemies of freedom, whether with silence or appeasement, and thereby to encourage them. The democratic parties are required to demonstrate clear, resolute, even militant opposition …
That militant opposition is already here. On Friday night, the Augsburg AfD politician Andreas Jurca was beaten unconscious by immigrants in a targeted political attack, which left him with severe facial bruising and a broken ankle.
Hessen Antifa have also published the personal addresses of all AfD candidates for the state parliamentary elections in October. I doubt it is very easy to come by such information without help from the state.
Yesterday, SPD head Saskia Esken declared herself in favour of banning AfD, should the constitutional protectors declare the party guilty of “confirmed right-wing extremism,” something which is almost certain to happen sooner or later: “The fight against the AfD is a fight that the whole of society, all democrats, must wage together.”
There’s considerable doubt about whether a ban is feasible. Oliver Maksan, writing from the Berlin bureau of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, points out that the party falls far short of meeting the criteria, even accepting for the sake of argument all the establishment characterisations about its “anti-democratic” tendencies:
The Federal Government, Bundesrat or Bundestag would have to convince the Federal Constitutional Court that the whole party, not just individual members, has included anti-constitutional goals in its programme and pursues them in a planned, militant and effective manner. …
Even the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution … does not see the AfD as a unified bloc. Its 2022 annual report still reads that “In view of the continuing heterogeneity of content within the party … not all party members can be regarded as supporters of extremist tendencies.”
Moreover, it is not enough to point to the widespread rejection of the EU, sympathies towards Russia or NATO scepticism within the party. One may think such attitudes are wrong, but they are not forbidden. What would have to be proven are genuine attempts to eliminate the free democratic basic order, specifically the principles of democracy, human dignity and the rule of law, in whole or in part.
I might share Maksan’s optimism if Covid hadn’t happened. Clearly the German state will do whatever it wants and worry about how to justify it after the fact. Maksan is more convincing in his argument that the process of a formal ban would involve protracted procedures, and contribute enormously to AfD support in the meantime. It is a risk that the BfV seems to be on the verge of accepting:
“The political centre is currently melting like ice in the sun,” a high-ranking East German BfV official recently told WELT on background. In the East, he said, there are now districts where it is not merely 20 to 30 percent voting for the AfD, but as many as 40 or 50 percent.
The major parties could at any moment deprive the AfD of considerable support simply by moderating their political programme. What is most ominous about these developments is the general refusal even to consider this path. As I said in another context, democracy has become for our rulers not a political system, but a series of desired outcomes. Formally democratic processes which threaten these outcomes are now considered anti-democratic and beyond consideration. It is not the AfD or their supporters who have been radicalised; many AfD statements denounced by the media as extreme and fascistic were in fact political commonplaces two decades ago. It is rather the political establishment that has grown extreme and lost touch with vast sectors of the electorate. I fear this is a unidirectional, self-reinforcing process, and that our rulers will never find their way back.