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Germany has banned political parties in the past. Can it credibly condemn Turkey for doing the same?

Trying to protect democracy from anti-democratic parties can give anti-democratic governments cover if they use the same tactics

- April 7, 2021

Last month, the Turkish government sought to ban the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Germany denounced the proposal. Turkey alleges that the party is affiliated with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the United States and the European Union designate as a terrorist organization — although the HDP rejects the claim. Germany argues that parties should only be banned as a last resort, since democracy requires a vibrant opposition and a system in which all citizens’ opinions are represented.

But Germany itself has banned, and attempted to ban, parties in the past. Just last month, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency announced its intention to place its largest opposition party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), under surveillance, even though the AfD has no alleged affiliation to terrorist groups.

This places Germany in an uncomfortable position. How can Germany advocate for party banning at home while credibly criticizing the same tactic in Turkey? Why has Germany been so willing to ban parties while admonishing other countries for doing what looks like the same thing?

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Germany advocates “militant democracy”

Germany is willing to ban parties because of its particular take on what’s sometimes called the “democratic dilemma.” The dilemma is straightforward: Anti-democratic parties can use democratic elections to come to power and then end democracy, as did Hitler and the Nazi Party in the 1930s. Solving this dilemma involves protecting democracy from those willing to use democratic institutions to subvert it. Germany has adopted an approach sometimes dubbed “militant democracy.” Political scientist Karl Loewenstein first developed the idea of militant democracy in the 1930s as a response to fascism. Militant democracy is the idea that democracies have the right, even the duty, to ban anti-democratic organizations and parties to protect the democratic regime.

With the Nazis’ rise in the rearview mirror, those who wrote Germany’s post-Third Reich constitution, called the Basic Law, made certain that it enabled banning anti-democratic parties. These provisions were first exercised in the 1950s, when West Germany banned the far-right Socialist Reich Party and the Communist Party of Germany.

In 2013, the Upper House of the German parliament tried and failed to ban the extreme right NPD, or National Democratic Party. The Federal Constitutional Court, which decides on party bans, ruled that though the NPD was certainly unconstitutional in its aims and attitudes, it couldn’t plausibly achieve its goals. The implication was that the country could only ban parties that posed a tangible threat to the democratic order.

Unlike the NPD, the AfD has a real base of support. It is the biggest opposition party in Germany and attracts millions of voters. Conceivably, the investigation into the AfD could be followed by an attempt to ban the party. If the AfD loses its legal challenge against its classification as an extremist organization, its leaders and members will be placed under surveillance. The AfD is polling worse than it has in previous years, perhaps in part because of the controversy around surveillance. This might lead Germany’s critics to argue that state surveillance is diminishing its own vibrant opposition.

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Turkey has a similar history

Turkey, too, has a long history of banning political parties. Its provisions are similar to Germany’s: any party that is contrary to the “indivisible integrity” of the state and its democratic and secular principles may be banned. Party banning has been a popular tool of past Turkish governments — almost 20 political parties have been banned since the 1980s. Twenty years ago, the secular Turkish government banned Islamist parties, including two precursors to the ruling AK party. The current Islamist government is using the provision with the aim of suppressing Kurdish political designs.

Turkey’s latest proposed ban targets the HDP, a left-wing party that advocates for direct democracy, workers’ rights and Kurdish rights. The HDP is the third-largest party in the Turkish parliament.

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Germany is in an awkward situation

Germany’s relationship with Turkey is already strained. In 2017, Germany, which has a sizable Turkish population, prevented Turkish politicians from holding rallies in Germany, attempting to reach expatriates who could still cast votes in Turkish elections. In retaliation, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged Turkish Germans to vote against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party.

Given Germany’s efforts to surveil its own opposition party, Erdoğan could accuse Germany of hypocrisy for rebuking Turkey’s proposed ban. Militant democracy may not only be an imperfect answer to problems at home — proscribed parties can reappear with new names and platforms — but can also cause problems abroad. When illiberal regimes argue that they’re simply taking militant democratic measures like banning a “terrorist” party, sincere militant democracies have less credibility in criticizing their actions. In other words, democracies that ban undesirable parties may give illiberal or non-democratic regimes a language to justify and defend their own suppression of opposition parties.

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Mika Hackner is a PhD candidate at Brandeis University whose research focuses on militant democracy.