In Germany, Fighting the Far Right Poses a Conundrum for Democracy

For Germany — a country that knows something about how extremists can hijack a government — the surging popularity of the far right has forced an awkward question.

How far should a democracy go in restricting a party that many believe is bent on undermining it?

It is a quandary that politicians and legal experts are grappling with across the country as support surges for Alternative for Germany, a far-right party whose backing now outstrips each of the three parties in the governing coalition.

Not only is the AfD the most popular party in three states holding elections this year, it is polling nationwide as high as 20 percent. German politicians have become increasingly alarmed that someday the party could wield influence in the federal government. Its popularity has grown despite the fact that the domestic intelligence services announced they are investigating the party as a suspected threat to democracy.

Germans have already had a front-row seat to the rise of so-called illiberal democrats in Poland and Hungary who used their power to stack courts with pliant judges and silence independent media. History hangs heavy over Germany as well — the Nazis used elections to seize the levers of the state and shape an authoritarian system.

Today, German lawmakers are rewriting bylaws and pushing for constitutional amendments to ensure courts and state parliaments can provide checks against a future, more powerful AfD. Some have even launched a campaign to ban the AfD altogether.

But every remedy holds its own dangers, leaving German politicians threading a course between safeguarding their democracy and the possibility of unwittingly providing the AfD with tools it could someday use to hobble it.

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