Banning the AfD would be a brutal assault on democracy
The clamour for a ban on the right-wing party reveals the authoritarianism of the German elites.
The German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, made an extraordinary intervention last week. Speaking on the 75th anniversary of the Herrenchiemsee Convention, which led to the first draft of the modern German constitution, he delivered a stark warning that the ‘enemies’ of democracy could soon be in a position to erode Germans’ freedoms and to ‘brutalise’ society. At the same time, he offered a solution to these dangers. Germans, he said, have ‘it in our hands to put those who despise democracy back in their place’.
The German president is expected to act above party politics, and so he was careful not to name these ‘enemies’ outright, or to specify what actions could be taken to defend German democracy. Nevertheless, it was abundantly clear that Steinmeier had the right-wing populist AfD (Alternative for Germany) in his sights. And the tools he alluded to, as set out in the German constitution, include banning the party outright. This is precisely how his comments have been interpreted and written up in the German and global media.
As shocking as it may sound, Steinmeier would not be alone in supporting a ban on the AfD. An editorial in German news magazine Der Spiegel last week called for the ‘enemies of the constitution’ to be banned, claiming that ‘it’s time to defend democracy with sharper weapons’. The German Institute for Human Rights, a major state-funded think-tank, claimed last month that the AfD is sufficiently hostile to the German constitution to be legally disbanded. Nancy Faeser, interior minister in the ruling Social Democrat (SPD) government, is also known to support a ban.
These calls have only been getting louder as the AfD has grown in support over the past year. Although the AfD lost ground in the 2021 federal elections, the populists are now polling ahead of the governing SPD. And while the AfD is polling second nationally, behind the centre-right CDU, it is currently topping the polls in four out of Germany’s five eastern states, three of which are holding elections next year. Recent wins in local elections in Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt have only added to the elites’ anxiety about a populist takeover of Germany.
It’s as if the German elites cannot hear themselves. They are essentially arguing that the only way to save German democracy is to tear it down, by banning a party that is supported by a fifth of the population.
The argument for banning the AfD draws on the postwar German tradition of ‘defensive democracy’, which is the basis of the modern constitution. It is based on the mistaken belief that the rise of the Nazis ‘exploited’ the democratic system to rise to power. To prevent this from happening again, so the argument goes, today’s authorities need to be on their guard, ready to ban and constrain nascent fascist movements before they can take power and destroy democracy from within.
Needless to say, defensive democracy is a deeply anti-democratic idea. It assumes it is the job of elites to determine which parties it is acceptable for the public to vote for. It also misreads both history and the situation today. As Bruno Waterfield explains: ‘It assumes that popular passions, unleashed by national electorates, lead to the rise of totalitarianism or aggressive state nationalism unless they are subject to some kind of… political restraint.’ Ironically, this idea actually buys into myths propagated by the fascists – such as that the Nazis spoke for the majority. In truth, Adolf Hitler was not chosen by the demos. His popularity was actually on the wane before he became German chancellor in 1933. Rather than riding a tide of popular support, he was invited into government by conservative elites, who were desperate to cling on to power.
The German elites also misunderstand the AfD. Certainly, there are figures within the AfD who espouse deeply obnoxious right-wing views. The party’s opposition to immigration can stray into outright xenophobia and racism. It is not uncommon to hear AfD spokespeople distinguish between ‘real Germans’ and ‘passport Germans’ – that is, German citizens who are not ethnically German. Prominent AfD politicians have spoken at rallies organised by the far-right, anti-Islam Pegida movement. And the increasingly influential Björn Höcke, who leads the party in Thuringia, has been accused of downplaying the Holocaust.
But the AfD is not a fascist party, and the recent surge in support for it is down almost entirely to the growing unpopularity of the current coalition government. The government’s policies on immigration and energy are widely disliked. And its commitment to the green agenda has been economically crippling. For all of the AfD’s many faults, it is currently the only major party that is kicking up any kind of fuss about these problems. Banning the party would mean banning the government’s most important critics.
These demands to ban the AfD are the logical culmination of elite efforts to demonise the party and its supporters, and to keep it out of power by often underhand means. AfD voters are smeared by the political class and in the media as racists, fascists and dupes of Russian disinformation – and therefore unworthy of a voice. Each of the mainstream parties has long maintained a strict cordon sanitaire around the AfD, refusing to work with it in government. This means that even if the AfD were to come first in regional or federal elections, it would be shut out of power. Voters’ wishes would essentially be voided.
The establishment has also leant heavily on the security state to keep the AfD in check. The party has been under surveillance by the secret service – the Bundesverfassungsschutz (the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, or BfV) – since 2021. AfD subgroups, including its youth wing, have already been banned as a result. Last month, the head of the BfV urged voters to think carefully before voting for the AfD, citing the threat it supposedly poses to democracy. It was an explicitly political intervention.
Ironically, far from wanting to tear down democracy, AfD voters tend to be concerned about the lack of democratic representation in Germany. Indeed, according to recent polls, some 77 per cent of German voters feel they have no power over what the government does. It is this democratic deficit that is driving voters towards the AfD.
This is one reason why the elites’ anti-democratic machinations have only increased support for the AfD. They confirm that the established parties would rather silence populist voters than engage with their concerns.
All of this recalls Bertolt Brecht’s 1953 satirical poem, ‘The Solution’ (Die Lösung). With ‘the people’ having lost the confidence of the government, Brecht poses the question: ‘Would it not be easier… for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?’
The elites say they are defending democracy. But their aim is to put troublesome voters back in their box. Make no mistake, the real threat to German democracy comes not from the populist right, but from an increasingly authoritarian establishment.
Picture by: Getty.
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