Thursday

25th Feb 2021

Column

Extremism in Bundestag poses test of German constitution

Germany's biggest opposition party in parliament, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), may be wire-tapped and infiltrated by undercover agents of the domestic security agency.

This sounds astounding, especially in an election year, right? It is astounding.

Read and decide

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  • The authors of Germany's post-war constitution wanted to ensure one thing: never again would democracy go down without putting up a fight

Of course, it has to do with our history. The Nazis used all the prerogatives it had, within a democracy, with the stated aim of destroying that democracy.

The authors of Germany's post-war constitution wanted to ensure one thing: never again would democracy go down without putting up a fight.

This aggressive German approach to home-grown extremism is rather unique, but after the storming of the Capitol in Washington last month, it may seem less outlandish.

In recent months, Germany's Agency for the Protection of the Constitution (the full name for the domestic security service) announced that it considered that four regional branches of the AfD, were suspected anti-constitutional behaviour cases.

This designation means that the agency can now use all means of investigation to ascertain whether it is in fact engaged in anti-constitutional behaviour.

The agency is expected to designate the entire party as such.

It could then investigate it in all regions as well as the national leadership. This process could result in a case being brought to the Constitutional Court to disband the party.

The agency's approach is long in the making.

It had already announced two years ago that it would start assessing whether the AfD represented a threat to Germany's constitutional order.

The case against AfD rests on two main planks. Firstly, the party's extremist youth organisation and an associated group called "the Wing" regularly refer to the German people as a race-based community ("völkisch"), in contrast to the constitutional notion of "the people" as a civic and legal community - ie, whoever carries a German passport is German, whatever his or her colour of skin, name or religion.

This is not a struggle about words.

In the last 10 years right-wing extremists have killed 34 people, most of them Muslim, claiming that Germany's racial identity must be defended.

The AfD overlaps with this spectrum.

A leading AfD politician, Björn Höcke, demands "re-migrating" people who are not ethnically German in a policy of "well-tempered cruelty".

Secondly, people in the youth organisation and "the Wing" aggressively mock the system of parliamentary democracy, using Nazi rhetoric.

In their own words, if the party does not win elections, there is only one conclusion: "put your helmets on." We saw on 6 January where such rhetoric can lead.

With the impending investigation by the security service, the AfD has tried to paint a more moderate imagine. "The Wing" has been formally dissolved and the party put out a statement claiming that it follows the constitutional definition of what "the people" means.

Such protestations are not convincing.

They remind us of Donald Trump telling his supporters at 11:00: "We're going walk down to the Capitol (…).You have to show strength, and you have to be strong. We fight like Hell."

And at 16:30, after the Capitol had been stormed and people killed, he asked rioters to be "peaceful."

Extremism is like pregnancy: a democratic party cannot be a little bit extremist.

The German agency has teeth, but it operates in a rule-of-law framework. Its decisions can be appealed – and usually are – in courts.

Legal disbanding?

The ultimate sanction, the legal dissolution of a party, can only be decided by the Constitutional Court, which has erected high legal barriers for making such a decision.

The German set-up belongs to our particular history and is not a product fit for export.

After all, a democratic society should be able to exhort the demons of extremism by itself. And there is a massive risk of abuse. Just think what undemocratic governments would do with such an agency.

The positive aspect lies elsewhere: the agency is rigorously focused on the essential red line in any democracy. Where does extremism start? What kind of platforms violate the central tenets of the rule of law, the right to vote, the rights of the opposition in parliament and the constitutional bill of rights?

Looking back at years of attacks against democracy around the world, there is still little clarity and attention given to that red line. What have we been talking about? The danger of "populism".

But scholars themselves stress that populism can be good or bad for democracy. That may be an interesting concept for scholarship then, but it is of no use to a society that needs to be crystal clear about what separates extremism from democratic behaviour.

How can we win the fight for democracy when we cannot say where the frontline runs?

It is high time to end the endless talk about populism and address the real thing: extremism.

To do so requires two things from each of us: we need to be clear when we do not agree with a political position that is nevertheless legitimate. Democracy means pluralism. We cannot all have the same opinion.

We need to be equally clear when the line is crossed. People who violently storm a democratically-elected parliament are extremists need to be judged by criminal law.

Parties that demand deportation of citizens reject the most basic constitutional provisions.

They can be subjected to de-radicalisation efforts, but they should not be part of the democratic dialogue.

The fog surrounding the line between extremism and democratic debate must be lifted. Parties and voters need to make up their own mind as to where they want to stand.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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