Germany Treads Cautiously in Court Case to Ban Far-Right Party

Madeline Chambers, Reuters, August 18, 2016

In his decade as a neo-Nazi skinhead in eastern Germany, Manuel Bauer says he beat up foreigners and disabled people, stabbed a cigarette in the eye of a 12-year old boy and assaulted a Muslim man and his pregnant German wife.

Bauer, who led two racist gangs, the “League of Aryan Fighters” and “Revenge Act”, says groups like his carried out violence on behalf of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), which has a seat in the European Parliament and five seats in one of Germany’s 16 state assemblies.

Bauer was jailed on a 22 month sentence for extortion, causing bodily harm and arson, before he quit the right-wing scene with the help of a support group. Today he works with refugees from Afghanistan and Syria. He says the NPD should be banned.

“There is too much democracy if you allow anti-democratic forces like (the NPD) to exist,” said Bauer.

The NPD denies that it is behind violence, and says it is being unfairly targeted as a group over the behavior of some individuals. Reuters was not able to verify independently any relationship between the party and Bauer’s former groups.

The upper house of parliament is trying to impose just such a ban. It has lodged a court case which alleges the NPD is inspired by the Third Reich, believes in ethnic German supremacy and incites people to torch refugee hostels. The Constitutional Court is expected to rule in coming months.

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But at a time when far right parties are winning votes across Europe, and Germany itself is struggling to integrate an unprecedented influx of more than 1 million foreigners last year, some experts in right-wing extremism say a ban could be counterproductive. Germany’s federal government, while officially supporting the case, has declined to sign on as a party to it.

A ban would deprive the NPD of around 1 million euros it receives in public funds as a lawful political party, and prevent it from contesting future elections, although it is not clear what would happen to its existing seats.

The party would be barred from holding rallies in public, and the authorities could punish people who persisted as members. But in practice, followers could avert punishment by forming new organizations, or take their activities under ground, making them harder to detect.

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The federal government’s decision not to sign on as a party to the case is seen by some as a sign that Berlin is uncertain of the wisdom of pursuing a ban. The government denies it is half-hearted.

“The German government, in particular the BfV domestic intelligence agency, supports the Bundesrat case for a ban and is contributing its expertise. The government therefore does not deem it necessary to have its own motion,” said a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry.

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Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, justice minister from 2009-2013 when the federal government was considering its position in the court case, said there was a high risk the trial could conclude without a ban, making it counter-productive.

“The NPD is an appalling party. But that is not sufficient for a case to ban them,” she has said.

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The NPD has been around since 1964 and survived a previous government lawsuit to ban it, which collapsed in 2003 as some of the party officials used as witnesses turned out to be government-paid informants.

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Support for the NPD has dwindled as Germany’s migration crisis has changed right wing politics, with parties that express dissatisfaction with immigration growing far bigger than ever before, but also trying to distance themselves from the radical right fringe to win over more mainstream voters.

This past year, a new group, the AfD, founded in 2013, has seen its support in opinion polls swell to about 12 percent by adopting an anti-immigrant stance, while disavowing the far-right trappings and rhetoric of groups like the NPD.

The NPD is too small to appear in most opinion polls, but German officials estimate its support has ebbed to just 1 percent from closer to 1.5 percent. NPD membership has fallen to just 5,200 from around 7,000 a decade ago. The AfD now has seats in eight state legislatures, compared to the NPD’s one.

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