The anti-democratic plot to ban the AfD
The German establishment seems to think it can save democracy by destroying it.
The rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has rattled the German political class. The right-wing populist party is now performing better in national polls than all three governing parties. It is also polling first in all five of Germany’s eastern states, three of which are due to hold elections later this year. Baffled and alarmed by the AfD’s growing popularity, many in the German mainstream have decided there is only one solution to their AfD problem: ban the party outright.
The clamour to ban the AfD has now become deafening. At the weekend, anti-AfD rallies were held in over 100 towns and cities across Germany. One in Potsdam, just outside of Berlin, was attended by chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Ostensibly, these rallies were prompted by revelations that senior AfD aides attended a meeting with ‘new right’ figures, including Martin Sellner, the leader of Austria’s Identitarian Movement. Investigative journalists at Correctiv magazine revealed that attendees discussed the prospect of mass deportations, including of German citizens from migrant backgrounds. The AfD leadership has since publicly distanced itself from these proposals and sacked the aides in attendance.
The deportations scandal has clearly played into the hands of those who already wanted to ban the AfD. Twenty-five MPs from the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) have publicly called for a ban in response. But even prior to the revelations, SPD co-leader Saskia Esken was pushing for a ban to be debated in parliament, ‘if only to shake voters out of their complacency’. Nancy Faeser, Germany’s SPD interior minister, is also known to support a ban.
Strikingly, all those campaigning for a ban claim to be doing so in the name of democracy. Last year, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivered an astonishing speech in which he claimed that Germany has ‘it in our hands to put those who despise democracy back in their place’. Although he did not name the AfD or call explicitly for it to be banned, the implications were clear. Similarly, an editorial in German news magazine Der Spiegel last year called for the ‘enemies of the constitution’ to be banned, claiming that ‘it’s time to defend democracy with sharper weapons’.
These arguments draw on Germany’s postwar tradition of wehrhafte Demokratie or streitbare Demokratie – usually translated as ‘defensive democracy’ or ‘militant democracy’ respectively. This idea is based on the historically dubious claim that the Nazis were able to seize power by ‘exploiting’ the democratic system. To prevent this from happening again, the argument goes, today’s authorities need to be ready to ban and constrain fledgeling fascist movements before they can enter government and destroy democracy from within.
The problems with this approach ought to be obvious. It assumes that the elites should decide which ideas and parties are acceptable on the electorate’s behalf – in order to ‘save’ democracy from the errant public. What’s more, even outright extremists can only be defeated through open contestation, not state censorship. Indeed, that is one of the lessons of the Nazis’ rise to power. Many leading Nazis were jailed for speech crimes.
The calls to ban the AfD also show us how easily the concept of ‘defensive democracy’ can be used to clamp down on parties the elite simply doesn’t like. For all its faults, the AfD is not a fascist party. Its opposition to migration can sometimes stray into contemptible racism and xenophobia, as the recent meeting with the Identitarian Movement demonstrates. But the growing support for the AfD is not a sign of a neo-Nazi revival.
Far from heralding the end of democracy, many voters are turning to the AfD precisely because of Germany’s lack of democratic representation. Some 77 per cent of German voters feel they have no power over what the government does. Much of the growing support for the AfD is down to the failures of the political establishment and its refusal to even address key issues.
The AfD has long been the beneficiary of the German elite’s mishandling of migration. Now it is benefitting from the German elite’s inability to tackle a major economic crisis. The green-energy policies of the current government, and of its centre-right predecessor, have helped to impoverish the nation. Yet the centrist mainstream refuses to even acknowledge the depths of Germany’s problems, let alone propose any genuine solutions. This is why more and more voters are willing to take a punt on the AfD – to send a message to a distant and deluded political class.
The call to ban the AfD will only play into the party’s hands, allowing its leaders to pose as demonised truth-tellers. It also sends a message that the political class would rather censor debate than engage with voters’ concerns. In practice, banning the AfD would mean declaring whole topics inadmissible for discussion, given it has regrettably been the only party willing to question the ‘consensus’ on immigration or green issues.
In their clamour to ban the AfD, the German elites have revealed themselves to be the real threat to German democracy. Perhaps it’s no wonder that so many voters are desperate to find an alternative.
Picture by: Getty.
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