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No public money for extremists?

Richard A. Fuchs
February 10, 2017

Efforts to ban Germany's far-right NPD party have so far failed. Now three states in the country are proposing a limit on the party's public financing, but that could set a dangerous precedent.

Symbolbild Rechte Gewalt hat zugenommen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Balk

If three states get their way, the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) would lose public funding. Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland are petitioning the federal government in the Bundesrat, Germany's upper house of parliament, for a change to the country's constitution. Meanwhile, Lower Saxony has put forward a draft bill that would "cut off state partial financing to parties that undermine the free, democratic basis or existence of the Federal Republic of Germany."

One vote, one euro

The legislative maneuvers are a consequence of the Federal Constitutional Court's January ruling against the NPD's banning. It concluded that the NPD was unconstitutional, but not in a position to bring down the state. The NPD is not significant enough, the judges said, urging lawmakers to find "other methods" than an outright ban on constitutional grounds. Cutting off funding would be one such method, according to the three states proposing it.

All political parties in Germany, the NPD included, receive state funding. How much depends on their electoral success at the state, federal and EU levels. Parties that capture at least 0.5 percent of the vote in national and EU elections receive one euro for every vote as well as almost 50 cents for every euro raised. In 2015, the NPD received 1.3 million euros ($1.38 million) in public financial support.

Court rules against NPD ban

Pro: Equal financing not required

For supporters of party public finance reform, a party declared unconstitutional could then lose its right to public money. That requires amending Germany's Basic Law, which needs a two-thirds majority in both the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, and Bundesrat. It would not be an easy sell: Due to Germany's Nazi past, the German constitution affords political parties a great deal of protection from efforts to undermine them.

Trying to deny the NPD state financing could have negative consequences, representatives of the three states proposing it acknowledge. Efforts to outright ban the right-wing nationalists have failed twice. Every subsequent unsuccessful move against the NPD calls into question Germany's democratic legal authority. Voices from the Green and Left parties have criticized the plan as lacking in benefit for democracy.

Con: Slippery slope to abuse

The plan is poorly conceived "superficial politics," Michael Koss, a political party researcher from Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians-University, told DW. He considers the idea "unimplementable" given how easily the line between democratic and undemocratic can be blurred. "It would mean parliament decides who among it is a good and bad democrat."

Deutschland Symbolbild Alternative für Deutschland - AfD
Many on Germany's political far right have turned to the AfDImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K.-D. Gabbert

Koss is also wary of potential abuse, should populists and extremists one day be democratically elected in Germany. Once in power, they could use limited public financing of parties as a "political tool against undesired political opposition," he said.

Uncertain future

Many doubt the NPD's ability to truly threaten German democracy. The party is losing members and threatened by splinter groups. Many on the far-right of the political spectrum have instead turned to the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has seen success after success in recent state elections across the country.

A final decision on continued public financing for the NPD remains far off. It first has to go through committee, then be debated in the Bundestag.