To ban or not to ban? Protecting our Democracies intelligently

, by Adi Horesh

To ban or not to ban? Protecting our Democracies intelligently
Protest against the far-right in Germany, Jasper Goslicki, CC BY-SA 4.0 <> , via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine this scenario:

On the morning of October 26th, 2025, winds of political change began sweeping through Germany, marking the onset of profound and deep societal changes. The results of the federal elections exposed a seismic shift within the German society, as the extreme right-wing party, Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) secured an unbelievable majority. As the party obtained the position to lead coalition talks with other political entities, a palpable tension gripped the nation and the whole world. The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party of Germany), under the leadership of the ruling Chancellor Olaf Scholz, barely scrapped the barrel of votes and managed to survive with only 50 seats. Yet, it had boldly claimed that it would not engage in any talks with AfD due to its members’ public and known controversial ideologies. Meanwhile, the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union of Germany) and its Bavarian allies, the Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, Christian Social Union in Bavaria), exceeded some expectations but fell short in the face of their extreme adversaries. In a surprising turn, the party leadership initiated internal discussions on the possibility of entering coalition talks with AfD, raising the prospect of an AfD-led government in Germany. The whole political landscape witnessed the unexpected fading of parties like the GRÜNE (The Greens), Die Linke (The Left) and Frei Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), as they found themselves completely gone within a political vacuum. This new, yet old era, in German politics stirred haunting memories for many, some of whom still vividly recalled the last time Germany was controlled by an extreme party – the Nazis. The spectre of the Second World War and the Holocaust loomed large, casting a shadow over the nation’s liberal future.

The above alternative history tale is the scenario that runs through people’s minds these days around Germany and in other places when they think of the ascent of the AfD party and its possible success in the upcoming 2025 federal elections. However, at present, that scenario remains merely speculation, one that lacks substantial plausibility but nevertheless manages to evoke strong emotions and prompt political and civil actions.

These days, the streets of Germany reverberate with the rhythmic echo of marching feet, united under the banner “Gegen Rechts (Against the Right)”. Across the nation, from small towns to the biggest metropolises, hundreds of thousands of people voice their disdain and commitment to combat the escalating influence of the extreme right-wing party, AfD. Indeed, the extreme right-wing party’s trajectory has been remarkable, gaining momentum since its initial setback in 2013 when it failed to secure a place in the Bundestag, the German Federal Parliament. Presently, AfD commands an unquestionable political presence, amassing 10-12% support in the past two federal elections and cultivating a constant growing support base throughout the country. The mayor of the Saxonian town Pirna is aligned AfD, underscoring the party’s expanding influence in various localities. Therefore, one shouldn’t treat AfD’s ascent as a joke or a matter of ridicule, as was done when the 45th U.S. President and current leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, announced his campaign back in 2015 and ended up winning and changing the liberal world. Lessons must be learned from the party’s swift and formidable growth in recent years, with the 2015 migrant crisis emerging as a pivotal factor, accelerating its ascent and popularity.

The rise of far-right and populist parties is a concern not confined to Germany but is an undeniable trend sweeping across Europe and beyond. In Italy, the Brothers of Italy, founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini after his death, currently holds political sway, both in power and national sentiment, as evident in mass demonstrations in Rome featuring the Italian fascist salute. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is poised to outpace the current French President, Emanuel Macron in the European elections, as indicated by the polls. This trend extends to various other European countries, with right-wing parties gaining prominence in The Netherlands, Slovakia, Sweden and beyond.

How should concerned citizens, fearing the ascent of AfD and similar parties in other countries, proactively act to avert the scenario when these groups achieve majority power, as was hypothetically presented at the beginning of this article? To answer this question, various perspectives have emerged, with two extremes being the most relevant. One approach, advocated by certain political figures and researchers, such as Malkopoulo & Moffitt in their 2023 paper “How not to respond to populism” suggest a strategy of gradual integration. This entails incorporating populist parties into the political spectrum, and in some instances, implementing some of their popular demands in order to dilute their ‘populist’ identity. The rationale is to erode their appeal and influence by addressing some of the issues that resonate with their supporters. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a more confrontational stance has been vocalised by figures such as Saskia Esken, co-chief of SPD, who proposes discussing the outright banning of AfD. However, this demand, though itself somewhat populist, raises concerns given the historical pitfalls associated with banning popular political parties. Examining three historical cases provide us with cautionary examples:

Germany - National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party): Following Adolf Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, the Nazi Party was temporarily banned in Germany. During this ban, Hitler focused on rebuilding the party through legal means and political manoeuvring. The ban, instead of stifling the Nazi Party’s influence, allowed Hitler and his associates to strategise, regroup, and eventually re-enter the political scene. This period of prohibition contributed to the Nazi’s later rise to power in the 1930s and served as a strategic interlude that ultimately facilitated their resurgence.

Turkey - Justice and Development Party (AKP): The Welfare Party (RP), an Islamist political party in Turkey, was banned in 1998 on charges of undermining the secular order. However, many of its members regrouped and formed the AKP in 2001. The AKP, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, went on to become a dominant political force in Turkey, winning multiple elections and transforming the country’s political landscape and its secular order to an Islamic-based, semi-authoritarian one.

Israel - Jewish Power (Kach): After Kach, which was founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane, was banned from Israeli elections in 1988 due to its extreme anti-Arab views, its followers regrouped under different names, such as Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives) and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). The ban did not eradicate the influence of Kach’s ideology, and successor movements emerged, contributing to the persistence of its extremist ideas within certain fringe groups. Today, Kahane’s power and influence became popular to the point in which his followers, who idolise him, serve as ministers in different Israeli governments and wish to materialise his xenophobic and messianic dreams.

The historical examples reveal the dual nature of banning political parties. While the concept aligns with the notion of ‘Defensive Democracy’, it also poses inherent risks and can inadvertently bolster the appeal of the banned party. Striking a balance between addressing legitimate concerns that fuel the rise of populist movements and preserving democratic principles is crucial in navigating the complex landscape and safeguarding the democratic fabric of the nation. To achieve that, first a concerted effort involving education and cooperation among political parties is advocated. In the case of AfD, which wields at the moment notable influence, a strategy of rallying against their ideas and fostering cooperation with other political entities in Germany and Europe is proposed. Second, a comprehensive examination of the underlying factors driving support for these parties is essential, enabling the deployment of education and political tools to address these sentiments proactively and prevent their escalation. Lastly, recognising early on and dealing with individuals and groups fostering xenophobia and racism is pivotal in shaping a resilient and inclusive democratic framework.

Democracies are fragile and require constant maintenance by both the politicians and the citizens, but armed with the right tools and will to learn to from our past mistakes, we can without a doubt safeguard and keep them alive.

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