German court to rule on banning far-right party

Berlin (AFP) - Germany's highest court will on Tuesday announce its ruling on whether to ban the far-right NPD party -- an explosive issue as the country faces an election year roiled by an anti-immigration backlash.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government supports the case, although the executive has not formally joined the high-stakes legal gamble, launched by the Bundesrat upper house of parliament which represents Germany's 16 states.

Most observers expect the judges at the Federal Constitutional Court to reject the bid, the second against the neo-Nazi NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) after the first one failed in 2003.

"We aren't madly optimistic," one of the initiators of the court proceedings told the Berliner Zeitung daily in December.

While the NPD's ideology is widely regarded as hostile to the democratic order in Germany, many expect the judges to find it unnecessary to forbid such an insignificant political party.

Spurred by the sensational discovery of a murderous group calling itself the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU) in 2011, the Bundesrat launched the second attempt to outlaw the NPD in 2013.

Since then, the NPD has lost its remaining seats in state parliaments, retaining just one representative, Udo Voigt, in the European Parliament.

It has also lost ground to the anti-euro fringe party AfD, which has morphed into an anti-immigration force railing against the mass arrivals of refugees in 2015.

Polls now credit the NPD with around 1.0 percent support, compared with 12 to 15 percent for the right-wing populist AfD (Alternative for Germany).

In a scene from black comedy bestseller "Look Who's Back," released as a movie in 2015, a reanimated Adolf Hitler scolds modern NPD leaders for their ineffectiveness in defending the "national cause".

- 'Germany for Germans' -

To justify a ban, judges must be convinced that under the definition in Germany's constitution, the NPD poses an active threat to the democratic order and holds an "aggressive and combative attitude".

For the Bundesrat, the group creates a "climate of fear", "shares essential characteristics" with the Nazis and "wants to destabilise and overthrow the liberal-democratic order".

Founded in 1964 as a successor to the neo-fascist German Reich Party, the NPD calls for "the survival and continued existence of the German people in its ancestral central European living space" -- or simply, "Germany for the Germans".

Such language flirts with the turns of phrase used under the Nazi Third Reich.

Germany's domestic intelligence services classify the ultra-nationalist NPD with its 5,200 members as a far-right party.

A previous attempt to ban the NPD failed because the presence of undercover state informants within party ranks was seen as sullying the evidence.

While those informants have since been "deactivated", the judges have voiced doubts over the danger the NPD poses to the democratic order.

With an eye cast back at the elimination of dissent in Hitler's Germany, the drafters of the post-war constitution set high hurdles for banning a party.

Only two political parties have been outlawed since 1945: the SRP, a Nazi successor party, in 1952, and the West German Communist Party (KPD) in 1956.

- New political landscape -

Things however have changed in German politics since the launch of the second case against the NPD in 2013.

The AfD has brushed the NPD to the fringes, and the populist movement could see members elected to the parliament in Berlin at polls later this year -- something no similar party has managed since 1945.

For most politicians and media commentators, parties such as the NPD must be beaten in the battle of ideas.

"It's up to politics and civil society, not the courts," the centre-left Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily commented.

"Hating foreigners cannot be banned, no law can help against radicalisation reaching the centre of society."

What's more, the newspaper argues, banning the NPD risks sending a signal to "autocrats" abroad, who could point to the decision to justify crushing the opposition.

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