January 4, 2024 - 7:00am

Banning major political parties is not something that democracies usually do, but in Germany it is under serious consideration. The target is the Right-wing AfD, which, as the latest polls confirm, is in a strong second place (and far ahead of the government parties).

What’s more, its support is rising to record levels in the former East Germany. It’s now at 37% in Saxony — which elects its regional parliament this year. If the AfD does win big, then excluding it from the Saxon regional government would mean discounting the electorate’s first choice.

However, accepting this mandate would violate the postwar taboo against giving Right-wing parties a share of power — hence the growing push to declare the AfD unconstitutional. After all, the party can’t win an inconveniently large number of votes if it’s not allowed to stand.

It should also be noted that banning the AfD may not even serve its purpose. Eastern Germany is a prime example. Late last year, the Saxony-Anhalt branch of the AfD was classified as extremist by a state intelligence agency, but it did not reverse the party’s advance. Similarly, there was a further warning from the regional election in Bremen, from which the AfD was disqualified. The result was a spike in support for a fringe populist party called “Citizens in Rage” — which leapt from one to 10 seats in the regional parliament.

If the AfD is disqualified nationwide, then don’t expect its voters to return obediently to the mainstream. By playing populist whack-a-mole, the establishment could end up creating a more disciplined — and therefore dangerous — enemy than the often shambolic AfD.

There’s a wider lesson here for establishment politicians across the Western world, which is not to use “lawfare” to defeat the populists.

In America, for instance, the Democrats should think twice before using legal manoeuvres to stop Donald Trump from running for president. If other states follow the example of Colorado and Maine, Trump will portray the attempt to keep him off the ballot as election rigging. He was wrong to make that accusation in 2020; the last thing his opponents should do is make him right in 2024.

In any case — and as in Germany — circumventing democratic norms probably won’t work. For instance, in 2021 the great misinformation scare was used as a pretext to throw Trump off social media — but did that stop him from making a political comeback? It did not.

That’s something that the EU commissioner, Thierry Breton, might like to consider. He’s been busy of late waging Euro-lawfare against Elon Musk’s X, yet his grandstanding only serves to highlight Europe’s failure to build successful tech companies of its own.

Of course, none of this is to give populism a clean bill of health. In some forms, it is indeed a threat to democracy. But the least convincing way to make this point is by editing ballot papers and curbing free speech. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.