BERLIN — German security officials are trying again to ban the country's only significant far-right party, after meticulously collecting new evidence in an effort to avoid a repeat of the debacle caused when they tried to ban it in 2003.
The interior ministers of Germany's 16 states unanimously recommended Wednesday pursuing a new ban of the National Democratic Party on allegations it promotes a racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic agenda in violation of the country's constitution. The ban would have to be imposed by the Federal Constitutional Court, the only institution capable of banning a party in Germany.
Under former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the court a decade ago rejected an attempt to ban the party after it turned out paid government informants within the NPD, as it known by its German initials, were partially responsible for the evidence against the party.
The failed attempt seriously embarrassed the government and produced a spike in support for the NPD, which it rode to parliaments in two states in 2004 and 2005. That gave them access to state funding – about (EURO)1.2 million ($1.6 million) a year – which they used to bolster election advertising.
"It is obscene that the NPD can finance propaganda material with taxpayers' money," Ralf Jaeger, the interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia state, said during a televised news conference. The party's ideology lays the ground for violence against minorities, leaving no choice but to seek a ban, Jaeger said.
Still, opponents of a ban note that membership in the NPD has been dropping, with 6,300 people in the party in 2011 compared to 6,600 in 2010. And despite its occasional successes in economically-depressed eastern German states, the NPD is marginalized at a national level – winning only 1.5 percent of the vote in the most recent federal elections in 2009; well below the 5 percent needed to sit in Parliament.
"There is the political risk that a party which is clearly losing ground will be resuscitated by such proceedings," federal Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said.
Friedrich voiced confidence that the intelligence gathered on the party is "good" and "most likely" sufficient to achieve a ban, but the minister reiterated the federal government's fear that the proceedings could bring the party back into the spotlight for years, ultimately strengthening it.
After the state interior ministers' recommendation, state governors are meeting in Berlin on Thursday and expected to follow suit. That paves the way for the Upper House of Parliament, where the states are represented, to vote for seeking a ban when it meets on Dec. 14.
While Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed reservations about seeking a new ban, it is widely assumed that the federal government will follow the states' decision and join the process, though it is not necessary. Officials say a first court hearing is not likely before next spring and a decision from the court is very unlikely before next September's federal elections.
Even though talk of a ban has been simmering for years, it wasn't until the crimes of a murderous band of neo-Nazis calling itself the National Socialist Underground, or NSU, came to light that the calls became widespread.
The NSU is suspected of killing nine men of immigrant backgrounds and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007 – operating under the radar of German authorities who blamed the killings on organized crime rather than racist violence.
It was discovered only last year when two main members, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boenhardt, were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide after a bungled bank robbery. A third suspected member, Beate Zschaepe then turned herself in and has now been charged with the murders and other crimes.
Even there has been no formal link made between the NPD and the NSU, the case brought a new focus on the far-right in Germany.
The arrest of the NPD's former spokesman in Thuringia, Ralf Wohlleben, in November 2011 on suspicion of aiding the NSU by providing the core group with a gun and ammunition helped reinforce the calls for a ban. He was charged last month with nine counts of accessory to murder.
In order to avoid the problems of informants, officials say almost all of the information collected in the current investigation is in the public record, including details from the NPD's own literature, Internet postings, and documented criminal activities such as the conviction in 2009 of an NPD politician for defacing a Holocaust memorial.
A federal judge asked for a legal assessment of the case for a ban by the state of Lower Saxony reported back to authorities last week that "an overall review shows the goals of the NPD to be incompatible with the liberal democratic order of the constitution," Der Spiegel magazine reported.
He concluded a ban attempt would have a better than 50 percent chance of success with the Federal Constitutional Court.
NPD leader Holger Apfel said at a separate news conference that he was "absolutely convinced that ... all these allegations will collapse like a house of cards," predicting it will end in "a giant fiasco" for those who have launched it.
Apfel said that even if the Germany's top court orders a ban, the NPD would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Juergen Baetz contributed reporting.